Restorative justice: One high school's path to reducing suspensions by half
In one tough high school in Oakland, Calif., a restorative justice program has cut suspensions in half in just a year.
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"We have been working really hard to basically move away from a zero-tolerance strategy ... [and create a] culture that is about healing from harm and restoring a sense of relationship," said Tony Smith, OUSD superintendent, at a press conference announcing the plan. "There have been deep and long-term structural reasons ... that have excluded and pushed out boys of color, and most often ... our African-American boys. The waste of so much human potential is not only unacceptable in Oakland, but across the country."Skip to next paragraph
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Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised Oakland's plan as a national model.
Concerns about discipline had already been woven into a broader strategic plan – spearheaded by Superintendent Smith, who took the helm in 2009 – to offer more support for the social, emotional, and physical well-being of students. This whole-child approach is the key to better academic outcomes in the 46,000-student district, leaders here say. Four out of 5 OUSD students come from low-income homes; more than half of third-graders have insufficient reading skills.
Restorative justice has been integrated into about a dozen schools and is spreading.
"Restorative justice is not a program; it's a way of being," says Bunche Principal Betsye Steele.
Mr. Butler works at Bunche full time via a partnership with the community group Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, but the whole school has embraced the concept, she says.
As a result, "the environment has changed.... [Students] are focused; there's not the typical cutting [or] the student conflicts [or] the disrespect of teachers."
Suspensions not only dropped by 51 percent last year, but they continue to fall, and Bunche eliminated disproportionality in suspensions for African-Americans.
Among Oakland's other strategies is Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which has shown success around the country by having schools set up common expectations, give students positive feedback, and then step in with intensive support for those having trouble meeting the standards.
Nineteen OUSD schools received awards for reducing overall suspensions – and reducing by at least 20 percent suspensions of African-American boys – between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years.
Time is also set aside for teachers, principals, even security officers to learn to respond more effectively to students, ideally before a suspendable offense happens.
"We've become reliant on distancing as a way to manage conflict. That's what a suspension is – I can't manage you, so I move you away," says Barbara McClung, OUSD'S coordinator of behavioral health initiatives. "Because of the cultural and class differences between our students and our educational system, there's a lot of conflict, [so] we have to build our capacity to use other means to resolve those conflicts."
Offense is in the eye of the beholder?
Among the most common reasons students are sent out of class at Oakland High School are disruption and defiance – refusing to participate, using profanity, arguing with the teacher or another student, or even walking around class, ignoring teacher instruction to do otherwise.
Within the first 15 minutes of one recent class, a teacher at Oakland High kicked out six of the seven African-American students in the class for disruption and defiance.
An assistant principal talked with the students about their behavior – but also sat down with the teacher to encourage him to try to engage his students in the class, rather than being so quick to remove them.