A Case Study on Conflict: Restoring Safety in Student Relationships - ASCD
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October 24, 2019

A Case Study on Conflict: Restoring Safety in Student Relationships

Social-emotional learning

As a newly minted dean of students at a small middle and high school, I knew things were not going well when the same student's father asked to speak with me for the third week in a row. With tears in his eyes, he said, "When Lila* started coming here four years ago, I knew that we had found a good place for her. Now, I'm afraid for her safety every day."

He went on to detail the events of the last month. Lila and Cora* used to be good friends, but a breakup in their friend group caused a rift between them. Cora was sending veiled threats about Lila on social media, giving her mean looks in the hallway, and spreading rumors. This week, Cora had said Lila's name in a conversation, then yelled, "I'm so mad, I could kill someone."

Despite our best efforts, school was not a safe place for Lila. Cora and Lila's friendship, like that of many teens across the United States, was shaped by social media. Their conversations often happened behind screens that hid the true impact of hurtful words. Interactions were no longer contained in school; they continued around the clock. After my administrative team and I analyzed pages of text messages to understand what was going on, we realized this was not a conflict we could solve with traditional discipline. No amount of detentions for Cora would help Lila feel safe.

At the end of the previous school year, we had made a schoolwide decision to shift from a traditional discipline approach to a restorative one. Some teachers and administrators received training from the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP). All staff had professional development from The Learning Exchange, a practitioner-led learning lab based in Philadelphia, Pa.

These trainings shaped how we understood relationships and conflict. The central aim of IIRP is "to develop community and to manage conflict and tensions by repairing harm and restoring relationships" (Wachtel, 2016, p.4). I was certain that a three-tiered intervention we created, informed by IIRP's training, would work for Lila and Cora, but we needed trust and time, which were in short supply. Lila's father needed an immediate guarantee that we could keep his daughter safe.

The situation became an avenue for teaching the social-emotional skills that all students need to function in relationships and in life. We hope our story will serve as a roadmap for administrators as they deal with the complexities of students' relationships with one another.

Tier 1: Building Self-Capacity

Our three-tiered plan relied heavily on our emotional support team, a group of full-time, master’s-level clinicians, as well as interns from local graduate programs in social work and counseling psychology. Team members have ongoing meetings with students and assist with concerns impacting emotional, social, and academic functioning. They also run support groups throughout the year to address topics around student mental health.

The first tier started long before Cora and Lila's rift occurred. They, along with many other students, have weekly meetings with a clinician from the emotional support team. The goals are to work through social and emotional concerns, develop self-capacity for navigating social interactions, understand the motives behind behaviors, and develop strategies for changing behaviors.

The emotional support team, without breaking confidentiality, shares what they can with teachers and administrators in weekly meetings. Together, we develop plans to provide students support. Through these meetings, I was aware of the dynamics in Lila and Cora's friend group and knew that they were coping with individual traumas, including grief, loss, violence, and drug abuse in the home.

Throughout the year, Lila worked with her emotional support person to manage difficult encounters with her friends. They came up with a plan to avoid bullying situations, to address Cora appropriately when avoidance was not an option, and to develop new friendships. Cora also worked to address the root cause of her bullying and better understand her need for connection by pinpointing problematic behavior and role-playing alternative outcomes that would meet that need.

Tier 2: Managing Conflict

Two weeks after Lila reported Cora's bullying behaviors, the situation had not improved. Lila was missing class to schedule impromptu support meetings. When she was in class, she was unable to focus on schoolwork, and her grades were slipping.

To clarify the behavioral expectations of our community, school administrators spoke directly with Cora and her mother about the bullying and communicated that Cora's behavior had led to the friendship's deterioration and tension for other students. To make this step work, we used conflict management to separate the deeds from the doer.

Cora understood why what she was doing was harmful and inappropriate. She was remorseful but explained that her emotions took over and made it very difficult for her to act rationally. There was pressure in group chat scenarios to live up to the “tough girl” persona she had cultivated. She agreed to put her strategies from her emotional support sessions to use and stop harassing Lila.

Tier 3: Participating in Conflict

Despite this groundwork, Cora continued to use threatening language and behavior with Lila, who avoided coming to school. We shifted from conflict management to conflict participation.

To de-escalate a conflict, both parties must agree to meet face-to-face with a problem-solving attitude. Lila agreed to participate because she wanted a resolution. To protect her safety, her emotional support person and I role-played the mediation beforehand and gave her the option of bringing a parent, teacher, or other friend to the meeting. Lila declined because she and Cora had a strong friendship before the conflict. She believed that mediation would remind Cora of their shared bond.

Through restorative mediations, we build students' capacity to address conflict by creating opportunities for them to take responsibility for their actions (Fronious, Person, Guckenburg, Hurley, & Petrosino, 2016). When negative interactions occur, our trained staff—either I myself or a member of the emotional support team—routinely asks students a series of open-ended questions. The conversations often happen during the school day outside of class, such as at lunch, and address past actions, the present situation, and desired future outcomes. Each person explains their perspective and intent.

We ask these specific questions (adapted from the IIRP guiding questions):

  • From your point of view, what happened?

  • What do you remember thinking at the time?

  • How have you and others been affected?

  • What feelings or needs are still with you?

  • What would you like to happen next? (Clifford, 2015, p. 52)

The emotional support team and I posed these questions to Cora and Lila individually and then together. Success hinges on trust and vulnerability, which Lila and Cora had developed with their point person. They were each able to recognize how their own behaviors and motivations contributed to their negative interactions. Their mutual vulnerability demonstrated that they each cared about repairing their broken friendship.

Lila said, "I was mad when I came into this mediation. All I wanted was for you to be punished for how I was feeling. But now, I'm remembering how we used to be a dynamic duo and how hard we used to laugh and how much we used to support each other. I just want my friend back." When Cora heard how her behavior had made Lila feel, she was visibly moved and apologized. The mediation, which began as a tense standoff, ended in a tearful embrace and a mended friendship.

Restorative Practices in Action

This situation highlights the importance of a school's proactive work to nurture trust, connection, and vulnerability. The work of building social capital with students takes time, sustained effort, and coordination from a team of trained adults. Conflict has no easy answers or quick solutions. But teaching the skills to navigate social complexities is arguably as important as any academic subject we teach in school.

*Names have been changed to protect students' identities.


Clifford, M. A. (2015). Teaching restorative practices with classroom circles. Center for Restorative Process.

Fronius, T., Persson, H., Guckenburg, S., Hurley, N., & Petrosino, A. (2016). Restorative justice in US schools: A research review. San Francisco, CA: WestEd Justice and Prevention Training Center.

Wachtel, T. (2016). Defining restorative. International Institute for Restorative Practices.

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