This weekend a couple of my boys dragged me to see "Spider-Man III." Arriving late, we found seats during an ear-splitting battle between Spider-Man and his best friend Harry. The fight was the first of several testosterone-driven, Dolby-enhanced aural assaults I endured while trying to untangle the story's web of mortal insults, broken relationships, and self-destructive revenge fantasies.
I was deeply impressed with "Spider-Man III," in spite of the bloodletting, explosions, and other atrocities. As an MPS school board member, I've had violence and revenge on my mind a lot lately. No, I'm not planning to suspend any of my fellow board members from a skyscraper or pummel them with my sandfist, like Spider-Man's opponents do to people. I've been thinking about how to stop the violence our students are engaged in outside and inside of our schools.
One of the best responses I've found is Restorative Justice (RJ). In RJ, the goal is to acknowledge the harm that's been done to both the direct victim and the broader community, and give the offender the opportunity to make things right. Sometimes this means a community conferencing circle, like the ones the Milwaukee County District Attorney's office runs for first-time teenage drug offenders. I was part of one of these circles with a teen who tried to sell marijuana in an MPS high school. I got to talk with him about how his actions affected me - someone he didn't even know - because I'm an MPS mom and also a representative of the district who is trying to get city and state support for our schools. When he messed up, he made my job as a parent and as a policymaker harder. Our community circle and the teen drew up an RJ contract which would allow him to avoid felony charges if he fulfilled it. The terms included doing well at his alternative school, apologizing in writing to his school leaders and the security guard who caught him, and securing a legal summer job so he wouldn't be tempted to try to sell drugs again.
The goals of RJ, whether it's used to de-escalate a student argument in school or to develop alternative sentencing options in the justice system, are always to acknowledge the harm, give offenders a way to repair the harm as much as possible, offer both victim and offender a return to an appropriate place in the community (and, yes, sometimes this is still prison), and to develop a culture of empathy.
What's this got to do with "Spider-Man III"? Toward the end of the movie, one of Spidey's enemies tells something about his life story and why he did some of his horrible deeds. You can see on the actors' faces that they are talking to each other as part of the same community, as members of families, as human beings. In this particular instance, Spider-Man/Peter Parker is the one who has been harmed and he says to his offender those most powerful words, "I forgive you."
This scene took the movie far beyond my expectations for this or any other mainstream action film and it gives me a little hope. Maybe we're starting to understand that might can't always make things right. Sometimes only human connection and forgiveness can do that.
Jennifer Morales is an elected member of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, the first person of Latino descent to hold that position. She was first elected in 2001 and was unopposed for re-election in 2005. In 2004, she ran for a seat in the Wisconsin state senate, earning 43% of the vote against a 12-year incumbent.
Previously, she served as the editorial assistant at the educational journal Rethinking Schools; as assistant director of two education policy research centers at UW-Milwaukee; and as the development director for 9to5, National Association of Working Women.
She became the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college, earning a B.A. in Modern Languages and Literatures from Beloit College in 1991.
In addition to her work on the school board, she is a freelance editorial consultant and a mother.