Discipline: Restorative justice expands in Oakland

Program focuses on students making amends for disruptive behavior rather than suspensions
By: | Issue: March, 2015
February 13, 2015

A restorative justice program that focuses less on suspensions and more on students making amends for disruptive behavior is gaining traction in Oakland USD, and will be implemented in all of the district’s 86 schools over the next five years.

The program, which started 10 years ago, marks a step away from zero-tolerance policies, which have proven to be ineffective at improving behavior and often drive students into the school-to-prison pipeline, says David Yusem, Oakland USD’s restorative justice program manager.

“Restorative justice is an alternative philosophy that sees people as part of a community, who should not be pushed out because they might be going through some trauma that manifests as disruptive behavior,” he says. “Instead of focusing on what rule was broken and how to punish, we focus instead on the harm that happened, and the needs that have arisen from that harm.”

Teachers, for example, won’t immediately send disruptive or disrespectful students to be punished by administrators. Instead, the student and teacher will schedule a restorative justice meeting with another teacher or staff member trained in the restorative justice process.

They also can meet with a student who has gone through a two-day training course in conflict resolution. The meeting date depends on how long it takes the students involved to calm downÑwhether that’s a few minutes, hours or daysÑand if parents need to be involved.

Each side has a chance to talk about what happened, how they feel about it, the impact the behavior had on others, and what can be done to make things right. For example, there was an incident at a high school where students damaged a classroom and a teacher’s personal items when a substitute did not show up.

The whole class had multiple meetings about the incident, and the offending students helped the teacher repair the room. The teacher began holding weekly team-building meetings, and the students now report feeling like they are part of a community, and that they regret their actions.

Positive results

The Oakland program began in 2005 at one middle school, which, after three years, saw suspension rates reduced by 87 percent, according to the district.

This successÑalong with a 2012 federal civil rights ruling that found Oakland’s African-American students were disproportionately disciplinedÑconvinced administrators to add the program at 27 schools over the past three years. Similar programs are used in urban districts of Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis.

The data is clear: In Oakland schools that use restorative justice, suspensions have dropped by more than half since 2011, from 34 percent to 14 percent, according to a December district report. Graduation rates increased 60 percent at high schools with the programs, compared to 7 percent at those without them, the report states. And chronic absenteeism dropped 24 percent at middle schools with the programs, compared to a 62 percent increase at schools that did not have them.

Creating a program

School leaders should hire designated coordinators to oversee the program, Yusem says. This person should not act as a firefighter for all conflict, but rather train teachers and students to handle the restorative justice process.

Administrators must understand that harsh punishment like suspension often only increases behavioral problems by alienating students from the school, Yusem says. And behavioral problems often recur because suspensions don’t get to the root of the student’s issues, he adds.

Still, restorative justice can take a few years to reach its full potential in improving attendance and minimizing behavior problems. “You need to be in it for the long haul, and be a big booster for the initiative,” Yusem says.

He recommends starting small and working with interested teachers first. Teachers can meet in a group to talk about issues important to the staff and to develop guidelines for how restorative justice will work. They can also invite students to help establish classroom rules and determine how disruptive behaviors will be addressed.