A high school student burst into a classroom one day just after lunch break wielding a knife and began to stab another student. I will call him Dan. Dan was arrested, charged with Assault with a Weapon, and sentenced to a period of closed custody in a juvenile detention centre. Near the end of his sentence, Dan and his family wished to initiate a community conversation to address the impact of the attack on the victim and the concerns that community members might have about his return to their midst. We convened a circle of about 20 people which included the parents of the victim, the teacher, two students who had been in the classroom and their parents, neighbours, and members of the local church. The student who was stabbed chose not to attend.
We all know powerful stories of engagement between victims and offenders. What struck me about this circle, and has stayed with me since, was the impact of the assault on those who were not primary victims yet carried immense burdens from it for years afterward.
These people are invisible in our current justice system.
- Like the teacher who revealed that for two years he had carried guilt for not reacting faster to protect the boy being attacked. The parents of the victim were able to say to him, “But you saved our boy’s life!”
- Or the neighbour girl who had been Dan’s childhood friend and emotionally described how she blamed herself for Dan’s difficulties. “In our teens, we drifted apart,” she said, “but if I had stayed closer to him as we got older, this might not have happened”. Dan was able to reassure her that his actions were not her fault.
- Or the student who was in the classroom and revealed that since that day he had defined himself as a coward because he initially reacted to the commotion and sight of blood with aversion rather than coming to the rescue. Although he had discussed the event with his mother many times, he had never before shared this feeling. The circle reassured him and normalized his reaction.
- Or the friend of Dan’s who came to the circle to defend Dan and argue that the boy who was stabbed was no saint. He ended up admitting that he had seen signs that Dan was planning something violent and should have acted to prevent it. He took some responsibility.
Healing and transformation took place in the circle that day because the process took seriously the ripple effect of brokenness in their lives and community. But the process came about only because of the initiative taken by the family. The justice system provided no process for the healing of those people, their relationships or their community.