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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.

By Staff writer / March 31, 2013

Ralph J. Bunche Academy principal Betsye Steele speaks to students at the alternative school's restorative justice appreciation lunch on March 14 in Oakland, California.

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor

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Oakland, Calif.

In the open-air corridor just outside his classroom, Eric Butler could hear snatches of escalating conflict: two girls talking trash about Mercedes Morgan – calling her the B-word and, even worse, a liar.

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He saw Mercedes standing apart, pretending not to hear. He called the senior into his room. She was reluctant, resisting his first attempt to find out what was going on. So he started over and introduced himself, made her laugh, asked about her life. He didn't dress or talk like a typical teacher, and he lived nearby in the 'hood.

Here's what really got her curious: He apologized. He told her what he always tells students when he first introduces himself as the restorative justice coordinator at Ralph J. Bunche Academy: "A lot of adults have been promising you things and not following through, and I'm sorry for that. It won't happen with me. I don't blame. I don't punish."

His role, he explained, is to help people resolve problems and repair harm.

Mercedes finally opened up, telling him her friend was accusing her of stealing shoes from her house. It took another half-hour before she trusted him enough to admit it was true – and that she'd been afraid of what might happen if she "punked out" and didn't fight. The 18-year-old had been fighting with girls since elementary school, as if she didn't know any other way.

All three girls agreed to attend a "circle," an eye-to-eye talk in the folding chairs in "Eric's room" that are always set up in the round. The anger was palpable at first, but Mercedes apologized – and explained that she'd stolen the shoes to sell them so she could help her mom pay for a drug test. If her mom could prove to the court that she was clean, she might be able to get Mercedes's younger siblings returned to her from protective custody. When the other girls saw Mercedes crying, they empathized and gave her a hug. They didn't ask her to replace what she'd stolen, but they wanted to know that, going forward, she would be trustworthy.

That was shortly after Mercedes had arrived last fall at the 250-student Bunche Academy, a continuation school where she was sent after being expelled because of too many fights at Oakland High School.

"It was cool, because if Eric wasn't here, I probably would have been suspended, but he taught me a way to handle things," Mercedes says. She has surprised herself by managing to avoid fights ever since.

Restorative justice, which has cut suspensions by more than half at Bunche, is one of several strategies the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is embracing as it attempts a seismic shift in the culture of discipline – from punitive to preventive, exclusion to inclusion.

A model of restorative justice

Increasingly, adults here are tossing lifelines to students who've had trouble at home, felt harassed by police, or witnessed traumatizing crimes in one of the most violent cities in the country. Oakland's overall rate of suspension mirrors the nation's, with about 7 percent of OUSD students suspended in the 2010-11 school year. School discipline is now a focus because, for years, African-American students have been suspended and expelled at very high rates.

In the 2011-12 school year, African-Americans made up 32 percent of Oakland's students but 63 percent of the students suspended. In middle schools, principals suspended about 1 out of 3 black boys.

The US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights investigated whether the discipline was discriminatory. Before making a legal finding, OCR collaborated with the district last fall on a five-year voluntary resolution plan to reduce suspensions, expulsions, and the racial disparity.

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