Last month, 28 people convened by video conference for the largest-ever victim-offender restitution services mediation hosted by CYS. The case involved eight middle school age teens from the Westside, who earlier this year had engaged in a spree of vandalism on an elementary school campus. Referred to CYS by the Los Angeles Police Department for restorative justice diversion, the case presented unique challenges and opportunities. The question confronting Mediation Unit Manager, Aida Cerda, and her team was this: would restorative justice (and learning) be better served if each individual were to mediate separately, or would the teens learn more, and individual responsibility be more accurately determined, if all were present as their friends spoke about their roles? “With a case with this complexity and on this scale, we were in new territory,” says Ms. Cerda. By all accounts, the decision to proceed with the complex, large group mediation was a success for everyone involved.
The principal of the vandalized school was very hurt and upset by the anti-Semitic graffiti and was hesitant to participate. CYS provided her and her colleague with additional support in the form of an additional community member to help articulate the impact of the teens’ actions. CYS volunteer Larry Nathenson is an active member of his synagogue, and stepped into this role of Jewish community representative. Additionally, at the principal’s request, prior to mediation, each teen wrote a pre-restitution statement, detailing their involvement in the incident and their feelings about it. Each individual’s statement foreshadowed remarks they gave in mediation, though the face-to-face meeting with school representatives and community volunteer Mr. Nathenson led the boys to more open and honest admissions. Until the day of the mediation, it wasn’t clear who had spray-painted a swastika on an exterior classroom wall. In the presence of peers and adults, the young man responsible admitted to his action. Underscoring the impact this particular action could have on Jewish students at the school, and on the community at large, Mr. Nathenson equated the swastika with a death threat and described the experiences of two survivors in the LA Jewish community.
The restitution process of the large group mediation was also unique. As Ms. Cerda explains, “The principal suggested and the team designed a ‘tiered restitution model,’ so individual harm-repairs could be tailored and assigned according to each individual’s actions.” All the teens wrote letters of apology and a report after watching video testimony of a Holocaust survivor. Some also agreed to perform community service and to obtain counseling.
For the CYS team, the large group mediation underscored the limitless potential for learning and healing through CYS’s innovative, community-supported youth diversion programs.