OPINION | Respectful dialogue — listening, reflecting, validating — can be a solution
Diary of a Victims’ Advocate
It’s during National Crime Victims’ Rights Week that we are launching this new periodic column from Crime Victim Advocacy Program staff at the Portland and Vancouver offices of Lutheran Community Services Northwest, a secular nonprofit offering multicultural services across the region.
These advocates work with a restorative approach throughout the metro area to support victims of crimes. All the services they provide center the needs of survivors while providing an opportunity for relationship healing and building with those who have been harmed as well as those who have caused harm.
These are some of their stories.
Long before the COVID-19 pandemic, bullying was a problem at and around schools. But, it also was a problem on social media platforms, and I imagine it still is, if not worse.
This relentless treatment can be very serious and cause extreme social, emotional and even physical harm to the person receiving it. In some cases, it has even led to suicide.
Sometimes, targets of bullying do not seek help because they do not know where to go or whom to talk to. Other times, especially when a target has sought help from adults in their lives and the interventions either did not happen or did not work, it is the person who has been the target that ends up assaulting the person who had been bullying them in the first place — they fight back.
The unfortunate truth here is when this happens, that is usually when the authorities get involved and then the person who “fought back” is the one at risk of being connected to the justice system.
This reality, especially true for Black and brown youths, is the green light for the school-to-prison pipeline and an example of how white dominant culture is failing our Black and brown youths.
One memorable referral to our program was just this; a group of middle-school-aged youths who had previously been friends ended up in a brawl outside of an event at school one evening resulting in the intervention of school administration and, ultimately, the police. Five youths, all Black and brown, were cited for menacing, harassment and assault. One of them had been the target of ongoing online bullying from a youth this person and four others attacked. It was this student, the one the victim of bullying “fought back” against, who was named the victim in this case. A crowd of students had surrounded and cheered and videotaped the fight.
By the time the referral made its way to my desk from a juvenile court counselor, it had been determined that the victim did not want to participate in a process toward making things right with the youth who used to be their friend, who was criminally charged with assault.
Volunteer community-based facilitators were assigned to work with the five youths and their support people to hear what happened and to explore the impacts this has had on them and their families and what possible impacts it may have had on the victim and their family, as well. All of this exploration fed into the possibility of what a letter of responsibility might sound like, especially considering there was mutual harm done over time.
Ultimately, the facilitators brought all of the youths being charged together, each with a parent or support person to hold a circle process to determine what, if anything, could be done to make things right.
The circle started with some frustrations. After all, the youth who started the fight was only defending themself against the taunting of someone who had been bullying them for quite some time. They had asked school faculty for help, and the interventions, if any, were ineffective.
Some might say this youth was at the end of their rope.
The facilitators dove in by asking questions like, “What led up to this incident? What happened at the moment you decided to strike? What could you have done differently? How do you imagine the other person felt? How did it feel for you? How do you feel about it now? What might you do differently in the future? And what, if anything, could you do to make things right?”
During these conversations, the facilitators treat everyone with respect and do not shame or scold the offending parties. They assure them that participating in this meeting is a voluntary process and thank them for being willing to show up and take accountability for the choices they made that caused harm while also validating with them that they had received harm prior to this and that that was not right.
Through careful questioning, listening, reflecting and validating by the facilitators, all of the youths and their parents came to an agreement that the best way to repair the harm was to communicate with the school to find a way to intervene so that bullying can be handled better in the future.
This is just one solution to a complicated situation. The benefit of dialogue is that the people involved in the conflict get to decide together what is the best way to make things right for them. Making things right in this way centers the needs of the victim, which would not happen through the judicial system where the focus of all attention is on the offender and the state decides what their punishment is.
Through a restorative process, an offender is seen as a human being and given the opportunity to take meaningful accountability toward and with the person they harmed. At Lutheran Community Services Northwest, the crime victim advocates can work with parties on conflicts such as these completely outside of the judicial system, assist the parties in finding ways to make things right, and assist in the building and repairing of community and the healing of victims and those who have caused harm.
If you or someone you know could benefit from services such as these, please call us at 971-888-7830.
M. M. is a crime victims’ advocate. Authors of this column have asked we use their initials only because advocates in this program have been targeted in the past.