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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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"Brother." That's a word you hear more around campus now, Robinson says, since he introduced it as a replacement for the N-word, freely spoken by urban teens but hurtful to many.

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Another trend that's fading (at least in school): waistbands that hang so low one wonders how they defy gravity. Noticing a boy's pants heading southbound, Robinson casually calls out, "No sagging," and the student makes a quick adjustment.

The larger goal is success in high school and college. Many of the students were encouraged to start the class in ninth-grade because they were at risk for dropping out or being expelled.

Robinson serves as a kind of go-between, talking with students, teachers, and parents if conflicts come up or grades slip.

"Last year, for the first semester I wasn't doing any of my work in math; I had a D," Byron says. After a talk with Robinson, the math teacher agreed to let Byron redo his work. He earned a B.

"[I didn't want to be] part of the black males that don't graduate," Byron says. "I was always thinking about college, but [Robinson] lets us know what we need to do to get there."

The classes are overseen by OUSD's office of African-American Male Achievement (AAMA), which draws outside funding to improve a vast array of outcomes.

AAMA executive director Christopher Chatmon says he's striving to "put forth a counter-narrative" about black boys – too often seen on the news as killers or victims. He publicizes the names of black students who get a perfect score on state tests. He organizes student performances at a downtown jazz venue. It's all part of what he calls, with a sly smile, a "conspiracy of care."

On a recent day at Bunche, clusters of students chat boisterously in the corridors and then settle quietly in their classrooms. On breaks they pop in to talk with Eric (he tells them not to call him Mr. Butler), to play dominoes and rib him for looking like comedian Tracy Morgan.

"On my bad days, the best way to turn it good is to walk up in here first," says Tyrell Kirk, an African-American student who expects to graduate in June. "He'll either try to work it out to the point that I get an understanding, or he'll try to make me laugh till I forget about it," he says.

The chairs in Butler's classroom encircle a memorial: tall white candles and a framed photo of Kiante Campbell, a Bunche student murdered downtown a week before. He was five weeks shy of completing his credits to graduate.

The students "can tell you so much about death, and how they want it and how they picture their death," Butler says, but when it comes to life, "they've lost their ability to dream."

So when he wraps up his restorative justice class that day, he asks what they want to be. "Mechanic," "entertainer," "join the military," "lawyer," the kids offer in hushed voices.

"Don't be afraid to dream big," Eric tells them in his booming voice. "Lawyer? Shoot for Supreme Court justice!" He makes it a homework assignment. "Tonight what I want y'all to do is dream.... I want you to see yourself paying them bills for your mama. I want you to see yourself buying me a new house!"

They're laughing as they head off to their next class.


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