'Native' approach: Judge presents a look at 'peacemaking' to resolve disputes

By Frank Weir
Legal News

Washtenaw County Judge Tim Connors was a presenter, along with Washtenaw County’s Dispute Resolution Center (DRC) Director Belinda Dulin, at the World Peace Conference 2017 sponsored by Rotary International and the Ann Arbor Rotary Club.

The event was held March 31 and April 1. Connors and Dulin discussed “Native American Peacemaking and Restorative Justice: Auras of Hope for State Court Justice Systems” at the Michigan League, site of the two-day conference.  

Connors has been studying and implementing centuries-old Native American approaches to conflict resolution since 2013 when the Michigan Supreme Court funded a Peacemaking Court here. 

Thus far, the court has worked with family and civil legal matters, Connors explained to the Rotary audience. 

Local judges have the discretion to refer those cases to the special court that they believe are the most appropriate.

In addition to the discussion by both Connors and Dulin, Dulin presented a video about the application of the Peacemaking Court approach in local schools particularly at Ann Arbor’s Skyline High School. 

The program there has trained student facilitators and resolved disputes for the last three years, Dulin noted.  

With a power-point presentation, Connors outlined the differences between our current justice system and conflict resolution based on Native American

Our current system, Connors said, “is based on separation and hierarchy. The community is like an unseen wave below, but it can be heavily impacted by the event that brought the dispute to court and may be a valuable part of the solution so that it does not re-occur.  

“Our root system is based on proscription. We proscribe behavior that has been determined to be unlawful or ‘harmful,’ and then punish it. The conceptual justification is: social engineering is best accomplished through punishment. Other key roots?  Priority, property and power,” Connors continued.

“Power and property have very deep and very dark, roots in our system and in our civilization.” 

Connors cited the work of Walter Echohawk in his book “In the Courts of the Conqueror” in support of his conclusion. 

“Those roots have taken precedence over responsibility to each other and to our greater community.  They have served as the legal justification in our courts to remove Native Americans and their tribes off their land and to dehumanize them. Those are the same roots that led to the legal justification of slavery.  

“Peacemaking,” Connors said, “emphasizes responsibility within and to each individual as well as to the larger community. It starts from within and carries out to how we relate to the rest of the world in our actions and thoughts. It acknowledges that at the root of all things, we are deeply and intricately intertwined with each other. Each action, positive or negative, echoes and reverberates through our community. That is why relationships are at the core of

“From those roots, we derive consensus, healing, forgiveness and apology. When we do so in a respectful manner, we renew the resiliency factors already within individuals involved in the conflict, and we create a space and place for peace. We build bridges, not walls.”  

Dulin explained how the process works in the DRC’s implementation in local schools, which is the same as that used in adult family and civil cases. 

Her video explained that when a student has exhibited inappropriate behavior against a teacher or fellow student, the matter is referred to a “circle” consisting of the wronged party, the student, fellow students trained in the process, witnesses, counselors, interested others. The entire proceeding is confidential.  

She cited a real-life example of a female student in 10th grade who confronted a teacher and exhibited inappropriate behavior. She was handcuffed and removed from school grounds by the school’s resource police officer. Ordinarily, she could have been sent home for a short or extended time or even expelled from the school.  

“This girl understood that problem solving is a personal responsibility,” Dulin said, “and wrote a multi-page plea during her detention to be given a second chance. She wanted to take responsibility, make it right. She outlined action steps she would take. I asked the principal to allow a Peacemaking Circle, to let
her talk to the people she had harmed. He agreed to give her a chance.  

“An extended expulsion does little to solve the problem and can lead to lost academic progress. It can be hard for students to get back on track,” she noted.  
Dulin explained that in the circle, the student heard from the teacher she confronted, and witnesses.  “The circle took on the responsibility to support her and get her on track and stay on track. A plan was formulated by the circle to get her school work caught up and completed, anger management counseling and
psychological services at the school were arranged and would not have happened had she remained in detention. Her parents were brought into the circle
and resources were offered to help the family with various issues.  

“This was four years ago. Today she is a sophomore in college. This process touched her and she blossomed and bloomed, moving on with her life. This can give you a context for what is happening in Washtenaw County and across the country,” Dulin said.  
She noted that 40 Skyline students have been trained in the process during the last three years and circles have been conducted for more than 200 incidents.  

“We are careful to deal with incidents that fit the process well, that are appropriate,” she said. “Like any high school, there are a lot of ‘isms’ like racism, anti-semitism, homophobia. The process has educated students how hurtful an off-the-cuff remark can be that they thought was nothing.   

“The program continues and we feel it has helped shift the climate of the school. Every parent wants a safe environment for their kids and we feel peacemaking provides that climate. It is being implemented in other schools in the area as well.”  

In a question period following, Connors noted that the Peacemaking Court and its circles have dealt with serious wrongful death cases as well as family cases and business disputes.   

“It’s absolutely right for business disputes. Businesses exist in communities together and they will have to deal with each other after the conflict or dispute is over.”  

A year-end report stated that 94 percent of the cases the Peacemaking Court handled resulted in an agreement from both parties; 82 percent agreed or strongly agreed that the result of the circles were fair as compared to what might have occurred in a court setting; 91 percent agreed or strongly agreed that after hearing everyone talk, the participant had a better understanding of the other person’s perspective; and 94 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they would recommend the peacemaking circle process to others.  

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