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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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"Ours is a work in progress, from the teacher end and the student end," says Oakland High Principal Jeff Rogers, who is working to convince more staff that discipline is about teaching self-discipline.

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"What we're fighting right now are people who ... [want to] eliminate those students from the formula that are going to make them look bad, or are going to require extra effort," Mr. Rogers says.

It's often more effective to work with students, perhaps through counseling during an in-school suspension, he says. "The danger is when we start throwing the kids away."

While suspensions aren't as effective as they once were, when more parents were at home to back up the discipline, "you also have to focus on what are the rights of all students to learn, and schools must remain safe," says Trish Gorham, president of the Oakland Education Association, the local union. "It is often a judgment call when there is disruption in the classroom: How much time is a teacher going to take with an individual student to address their social/emotional needs?"

Sometimes calls for reductions in suspensions feel like "a numbers game," Ms. Gorham says, and "teachers have suffered [in certain schools when] consequences are not apparent to the students for misbehavior."

Science teacher Nancy Caruso says she understands why the district wants more positive interventions, but students sometimes wait for weeks when they are referred for services.

Meanwhile, she says, there's still a problem with violence at Oakland High, where she's been teaching since 1996. "There have been serious threats against teachers," she says, noting that one student's hair was even lit on fire. Administrators, she says, "don't do the paperwork for [expulsion], so the kid gets a five-day suspension and [is] back." (The student who lit the fire also received counseling, Rogers says.)

Districtwide, three categories account for 75 percent of suspensions of black boys: disruption and defiance; causing, attempting, or threatening injury; and obscenity, profanity, or vulgarity. For black boys suspended multiple times, 44 percent are suspended solely for defying authority. Many of those offenses, district leaders and education experts say, are in the eyes of the beholder – and that's where racial disparity is most notable.

African-Americans will often say that "African-American boys are demonstrative, that they are challenging you because that's how they engage in learning," says Ms. McClung, but "teachers who [refer students for] suspensions [see] disrespect, disruption, and danger."

More school staff have been taking training to recognize unconscious bias. And, to better track fairness, the district now requires more detailed reporting of what behaviors led to discipline for broad categories such as defiance.

Life lessons: a firm handshake, eye contact

The onus is not just on the adults. One way the district is helping more African-American boys meet behavioral standards is through "manhood development" classes – so far at six high schools and several middle schools.

Visitors to Tiago Robinson's class at Oakland High are greeted with eye contact and a firm handshake from each student as he introduces himself.

It's one of the "life lessons" that 10th-grader Byron Williams appreciates about this elective for African-American boys. As he's followed the tips, he's noticed that "people actually listen to what you've got to say."

Before they fill out a practice college application, Mr. Robinson asks a series of questions about a film they recently watched. He tosses a ball to an upraised hand, and then tosses a snack once the question has been answered. "Thank you, brother," the boys respond.

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