Let’s Talk: Students and Their Community Conversations
A few years ago, guided by their respective deans, student advisers in the College Houses began regularly opening a time and space for community discussion.
“There is a space created where any person in the group can speak on any issue,” says Melissa Giess, assistant dean of student affairs and Weis College House dean. “There’s an opportunity for folks to say ‘I think it’s been loud lately and it’s impacting my ability to study. Or ‘Our bathrooms are really dirty and I think we need to talk about it.’”
“Instead of authorities imposing rules on students like quiet hours or keeping the kitchen clean or how substance use is impacting people on the floor, the students themselves decide, ‘What are our standards? How are we going to respond to each other in times of conflict?’”
Dean of Students Colette Shaw
Keystone Conversations, a restorative practice initially for developing and upholding community values, evolved from an initiative launched across campus in 2018 by Franklin & Marshall’s Dean of Students Colette Shaw.
“Restorative practices in conflict resolution involve voices of the people directly impacted by harm,” Shaw says. “We started adopting more restorative practices through our Student Conduct Committee, and now we have a group of volunteer faculty, staff and students who have done mediation training and group facilitation training.”
The purpose is to empower students to resolve issues without relying on punishment-based or control-based models, minimizing their need to involve faculty, administrators or staff.
“Instead of authorities imposing rules on students like quiet hours or keeping the kitchen clean or how substance use is impacting people on the floor, the students themselves decide, ‘What are our standards? How are we going to respond to each other in times of conflict?’” Shaw says.
She adds, “They're practicing life skills, instead of having faculty or professional staff try to fix a problem that they're not even a part of.”
Last year, the Advoz Mediation and Restorative Practices Center in Lancaster awarded recognition to F&M for infusing restorative practices in the campus community.
Once trained, house advisers (HAs) facilitate the conversations, which are conducted in a circle (to diminish hierarchy) and in places like a College House’s Great Room or Seminar Room.
“Because a bunch of our students said they had never been downtown yet, Michael, one of the HAs, took his group downtown to Central Market and they hung out and talked there, but usually it’s in the House and often the Great Room,” Giess says.
Students are invited to attend, even students whose behavior requires a discussion, but not obligated. Most students welcome the conversations, which seems to have made for closer communities in the College Houses and residence halls, says senior HA Julianne Cadden.
Conversations are non-judgmental, even when addressing students with inappropriate behavior issues, says Cadden, offering an example of an underage student consuming alcohol.
“A non-restorative conversation might be, ‘Don't you know that drinking is against the rules?’ A restorative conversation might be about how you use alcohol: ‘Do you know what alcohol might do to your body or what sort of impact your behavior had on somebody else?’” she says.
When campus policies have been violated, deans and members of the Committee on Student Conduct meet with students and are transparent with information they have, sharing with the student what they heard.
“We would say, ‘We heard you may have gotten pretty drunk and torn down all the decorations in your hallway, but we'd really like to hear from you. What have you been thinking about? Did this even happen?’” Shaw says.
Even for very serious violations that result in disciplinary suspensions, the College has adopted restorative practices that begin with providing students with resources and time to address underlying concerns.
“Sometimes students aren’t ready for the responsibilities of living in a residential community, or they have needs that require more help than we can provide here,” says Shaw. “We want them to receive that help so they can bring their full, healthy selves to F&M.”
As House Dean, Giess says she no longer directs the circle conversations, but serves as adviser to the HAs’ planning and organizing the meetings.
“And I try very hard to barely speak,” she says. “They are empowering themselves.”
Students in College Houses and residence halls are finding success in interpersonal relationships with the conversations and restorative practices, Shaw says. Deans like Giess see the practices as transformative.
“I have seen this huge decrease in the expectation that I will solve these kinds of problems for them,” Giess says. “Four years ago, it was very common for me to get messages every week: ‘People are trashing our bathroom, people are being loud upstairs.’ As if I was supposed to have a magic wand and solve all these problems.”
She explains, “I’ve had one student this year come to me with their noise problem, and that was valid; that problem they tried to address themselves, the HA tried, and I needed to be involved. I do not get any complaints about cleanliness or guests or all that stuff. They know to go to each other with it and they have a way to do that.”
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