A new referral: An 11 year-old saw a 9 year-old wearing a red shirt. The older boy interpreted the red shirt as having to do with gang affiliation (apparently it did not, it was just an innocent choice of a shirt to wear). He beat the younger boy, hitting him a couple of dozen times.

This kind of behavior does not happen in a vaccuum. I’m sure it made perfectly good sense to the 11 year-old, who may have had some notion, learned from people important in his life, that his behaviors were in fact principled and heroic. That’s typical of the constrained perception of possibilities among those who confuse violence with problem-solving, and fear with respect. What’s missing, obviously, is any evidence of empathy or sensitivity. Will a restorative process awaken empathy in this boy, as it so often does in others?

There are several open questions here. One is simply developmental; how ready is an 11-year old who is already this damaged to benefit from a restorative encounter? Another has to do with safety for the victim. Typically we would invite the victim to participate and share the impacts of the assualt; what people share often surprises perpetrators, which is when we see epiphanies occur. In fact, victim participation and opportunity to have a voice is at the heart of restorative practice. But can we put a 9-year old at further risk by having him in a circle with an older boy who is already heavily influenced by gang culture? I think not. (This is not an uncommon problem in restorative justice and there are well-established, tested ways to work around it.)

This is a heartbreaking, challenging, and interesting referral. I’m sure we’ll learn a lot. Please feel free to share your thoughts. Our staff will be contacting restorative justice workers who specialize in working with gangs for their advice while we decide how to move forward with this.


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