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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 17, 2002

Spare rod and start conference

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Columnist

A group of concerned school counselors gave thumbs up last week to an old Polynesian way of handling troublemakers after coming to the conclusion that our justice system, based on punishment, doesn't work very well.

The counselors met in the 'Ewa Beach public library to learn about a group approach to misbehavior. It's called "conferencing" and is a modern adaptation of the Polynesian way to approach crime.

To my amazement, they agreed that this system could be put to use without an appropriation from the Legislature, a ruling by the courts, a proclamation by the governor or even a vote by the Board of Education.

A school principal could simply decide, "We'll try it."

Let's say a tough tita is intimidating smaller kids, taking their lunch money. They're afraid to tattle for fear of getting beat up. Finally a girl complains to her mother, who goes to the principal and makes a fuss.

So what happens? The tough kid gets counseling. Maybe she is suspended, even arrested. Does it teach her anything? Lorenn Walker, a former attorney in charge of the session, doesn't think so.

The girl's attorney will tell her to plead "not guilty."

"Now everything is backwards," she said. "In court, all the attention is on the person who committed the offense. The victim is lucky if she gets to tell her story. The connection is lost between the crime and the victim."

On the other hand, let's say the arresting officer or the principal gives the tough kid a choice. Instead of getting a criminal record, she can admit that she did it and sit in on a family conference.

Here's how it works. The principal calls both sets of parents, who agree to attend with their kids. The police officer is there. Probably other kids who were victims. Walker says it's important to have someone who knows how to run the meeting. The school counselor is a natural choice, after a training session.

First, the tough kid describes why she did it, also who might have been affected by her behavior. Second, the others tell how it feels to them. After watching a family conference session, I can tell you that's a learning experience for the offender.

Third, the participants in the session discuss how they can repair the harm done and make things right. In this case, the tough kid's father might promise the girl victim that he'll see to it that his daughter won't do it again.

Finally, everybody eats together.

It's not unusual for the parents to end up sympathizing with each other, Walker said. She added that the Family Court is starting a conferencing program. There's no reason schools can't do the same.

One more thing. Walker is researching how crime affects people's lives and is looking for victims of crimes in which the perpetrator is unknown. If you're a victim who doesn't know who did it to you, call 637-2385.

Reach Bob Krauss at 525-8073.