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.
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.
"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."
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.
"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.
"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.
"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.
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.