Students at Montera Middle School in Oakland said the school's eighth-grade class was full of "drama" earlier this year. There had been a fight between two girls, and the conflict had broadened to the girls' friends. Some students "were coming to school in sweats, ready to fight," recalled Yari Ojeda-Sandel, a staffer at Montera who coordinates the school's new conflict-resolution program known as restorative justice.
The school's principal suspended the two girls who had fought. And when the two students returned to campus, "Miss Yari brought us together," said one of the girls. "Some of the things [the other girl] said — that she had a lot going on [problems outside school] — since I heard that, I felt bad that I fought her for something so small."
Ojeda-Sandel suggested the girls lead what's known as a restorative justice circle, in which they would talk with each other and their friends about their conflict rather than resorting to violence. "We planned it for two weeks," one of the girls explained. "We wrote guidelines. We had stuff to say: 'We should stop being mean towards each other.' And we had questions for them: 'What problems there were, why people spread rumors.'"
One of the friends who attended the circle said she learned "there was no reason for me to fight them. And they said they didn't want to fight. We were listening. And we realized it's done now."
But the discussion went further. Students who had been spreading rumors, said one of the girls who led the circle "acknowledged that. You have to own up sometimes."
Montera teacher Shandra LaMotte, who attended the circle, said several of the girls who had been preparing to fight admitted: "'We have a problem controlling our anger. We don't get to express our emotions at home. But that wasn't the right way to do it.'"
Previous "anger management" programs the girls had attended had not been effective, LaMotte said, but this was different. "Having to face the people they're in conflict with, they hear the stories of other people. With that communication, empathy builds."
At the end, said one of the student leaders, "We made agreements: Don't spread rumors. Don't fight." Since that discussion, "We've been getting closer, staying out of trouble. Rumors and drama have gone way down. It's a big change; I can go to school and be positive."
Teachers and administrators at Montera say the restorative justice program at their school has not only reduced conflict and the number of violent outbreaks on campus, but it also has cut the number of student suspensions and expulsions. Similar results have played out in more than a dozen public schools across the city this year. Restorative justice "means a complete shift in our thinking as a school," said Montera Principal Tina Tranzor. "I am very much a rule-follower," she added. "I was an attorney, a military brat. Punitive is in my blood. But restorative justice is life-changing for our students. The kids are more aware in their thought processes about what they're doing. It has an impact on the rest of their life."
Officials who work with the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Program, which has begun referring some young offenders to a restorative justice program run by the Oakland nonprofit CommunityWorks, are reporting successes as well. Oakland School Security Officer Rick Moore said he has seen students who were headed down the wrong path "turn themselves around" through participating in the CommunityWorks program. Moore has also taken part in some of the "conferences" — or circles — at the heart of the process. They typically include not only the young offender, but also his or her family members, the victim, and sometimes the victim's family.
"The victims tell how the crime has affected their lives, emotionally as well as financially," Moore explained. "I have seen victims cry. I've seen children cry. The parents get to see how their child has affected someone's life. The child gets a feeling of what they've done."
The success of restorative justice programs in Oakland this year, in fact, may present the best new hope for reducing violence in city schools, while cutting down on the number of suspensions and expulsions, and, ultimately, slashing the district's high dropout rate. And by helping kids stay in class and out of trouble, restorative justice programs also could play a pivotal role in reducing overall crime in the city.
Yet despite the potential that restorative justice holds for Oakland public schools and the city at large, its future is uncertain. Currently, funding for both the school district and the county's programs is temporary and limited. And there's no guaranteed source of financing on the immediate horizon. Instead, the City of Oakland is focused on spending millions more on police over the next two years.
But people involved in restorative justice in Oakland believe the program is worth expanding. Traditional methods of dealing with youth crime and misbehavior aren't working, argued Kimblyn Bryant, a restorative justice coordinator at Castlemont High School. "The prisons are full, and the graveyards are full of kids. Those are the outcomes. We're ready to try something new."
Restorative justice is inspired by the traditional practices of indigenous communities in Africa, the Americas, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Instead of punishing offenders for violating rules or laws, the offender meets with the victim and others, including those also affected by the crime or misdeed, family members, and respected figures in the community. All the participants discuss what happened and how to heal the harm done to the victim and the community. The goal is to restore relationships rather than punish the offender.
Courts and schools in Canada, the United States, and Great Britain have increasingly been adopting restorative justice practices in the last forty years. Studies (many listed on the website of the International Institute for Restorative Practices) have found evidence that restorative justice has been effective in adult and youth criminal cases, resulting in less recidivism, less post-traumatic stress for victims, and lower costs. It's been effective in schools, and has led to a decrease in classroom disruption, fighting, and suspensions.
The first restorative justice program in Oakland public schools was at Cole Middle School in West Oakland in 2007, and, by all accounts, it was extremely successful. It reduced the school's suspension rate by 87 percent in one year, according to a 2010 evaluation by UC Berkeley School of Law. An overwhelming majority of students at Cole reported that the program had reduced fighting and was "helping relationships with other students," the evaluation stated.
Piecing together funding from various sources, Oakland Unified School District has been gradually expanding the restorative justice program to other schools. The district's commitment to restorative justice then became a key element in a disciplinary strategy OUSD adopted last fall in a voluntary agreement with the US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. Federal civil rights officials had become alarmed by the district's disproportionate rate of suspension for African-American students, who represent 34 percent of the school district's enrollment but were incurring 67 percent of the suspensions.
A growing body of research, including a major study published in 2011 by the Council of State Governments, shows that suspensions are not the best way to deal with students who act out or get in trouble at school. Suspensions not only don't make schools safer, but they also may contribute to lower grades and higher drop-out rates, and may ultimately lead kids to become caught up in the criminal justice system.
Oakland schools started using restorative justice as way to reduce suspensions, said OUSD Behavioral Health Manager Barbara McClung, "but it's grown to be something we use for community-building, to change the broader school climate. Not just to mend harm, but to prevent harm."
In "Tier One" of the OUSD program, entire classrooms hold "community-building circles," in which students get to share experiences and feelings they usually keep hidden. To prevent arguments and cross-talking in the circles, the participants pass a "talking piece" — such as a stuffed animal — around the circle, and only the person holding the piece can talk. In Tier Two, harm circles, a student who has caused harm meets with the person harmed and a group of other students and/or adults. Each person describes their experiences and feelings, then the group figures out a plan to repair the harm. And in Tier 3 circles, students who have been suspended are reintegrated into the school.
There's strong evidence that the program has been effective in the dozen or so Oakland schools that are now using it. Suspension rates have dropped dramatically at some schools, district officials say, and a number of schools, including McClymonds High School, Ralph J. Bunche Continuation High School, and West Oakland Middle School, are no longer suspending black students at a disproportionately high rate.
At McClymonds, 34 percent of African-American male students were suspended in 2011, but that dropped to just 17 percent in 2012 thanks to restorative justice, according to David Yusem, the OUSD restorative justice coordinator. Ralph Bunche reduced its African-American male suspension rate from 19 percent in 2011 to only 7 percent in 2012. And West Oakland Middle School slashed its African-American male suspension rate from 68 percent in 2011 to just 13 percent in 2012.
At Montera, the restorative justice program recently headed off a looming fight between eighth-grade African-American and Latino boys. "There were rumors there was going to be a fight," said Office Manager Yolanda Bullock, "so they pulled all those boys out of class and gave them an opportunity to settle it."
"Miss Yari [Ojeda-Sandel] asked questions," said one of the students who participated. "'What do you guys want to say to each other?' Kids started talking, saying 'We really don't want to fight.' We tossed the panda [their talking piece] back and forth between the groups. It started gelling. It felt great to get out and express how we felt. We felt like we had a real bond. Now, there are no more fights."
Restorative justice, said Ojeda-Sandel, is not so much a specific process as an "underlying philosophy of being restorative, making whole what was broken. It's a whole way of being." Punitive systems "focus on the rule — who broke the rule, what are the repercussions. Restorative justice focuses on relationships. It's people-focused."
Castlemont High School is building that restorative approach into its discipline system. Out-of-school suspensions have dropped sharply, and a new, restorative in-school-suspension program began in January. The day "begins with a restorative circle, to get them into a positive space," said Michael Scott, who runs the in-school-suspension program.
"Then there's a more extensive reflection about issues that affect youth, like violence in the community," Scott continued. "They reflect on their behavior and ways they might behave differently in the future. The kids really open up. They get an opportunity to be heard." Then tutors help the students with academics.
"Kicking kids out of school for a few days doesn't rehabilitate them the way in-school suspension does," Scott added. Since the in-school program began, only 15 percent of the participants have come back a second time. "In my previous experience, lots of kids were suspended multiple times," Scott said. "This is better."
Teachers at Castlemont are also using restorative justice to resolve conflicts among their students. Marsha Rhynes, who teaches college-prep English, asked for a circle when a student's cellphone disappeared from her classroom. A student said he would return the phone to its owner, but ended up giving it to a third student, who said he had left it in an administrator's office. The upshot was the phone was gone.
"I got the two boys who had touched the phone together," said Bryant, "and said somebody was going to need to be replacing that phone. I asked them each what level of responsibility they were willing to take and they each immediately said they would take 50 percent." The next day, the phone anonymously reappeared. Without the process, there probably would have been a fight, Rhynes said.
Teachers at Castlemont are even asking for restorative justice circles to help resolve problems between them and their students. In one case, a teacher met in a circle with Restorative Justice Coordinator Yejide Ankobia, an administrator, and two students who had been disrupting her class. After hearing each other's views, both the students and the teacher agreed to apologize to the class — the students for disrupting, the teacher for "losing her cool and raising her voice," said Ankobia.
Komoia Johnson, restorative justice coordinator at Coliseum College Prep Academy, described how the process helped a seventh-grade student who had been a frequent victim of bullying because of his small size. "He had expressed to me how he was tired of being angry all the time." After a circle that included his friends and the students who had been bullying him, the seventh grader "was empowered," Johnson said. "When other incidents occurred, he came to me and said, 'I need to have a circle.' He felt safe enough in the circle to confront the person. The circle was a great outlet instead of taking it out on the people around him."
Beyond the changes in individual students, Johnson said, "the overall tone of the school has changed." Although the school is not yet routinely using restorative justice as an alternative to suspension, the suspension rate has fallen. Johnson said that's "because we've done more Tier One community-building circles, so there's less [of the behavior that gets students suspended]."
In addition, African-American students are no longer suspended at higher rates at Coliseum College Prep. Part of the reason may lie in a pattern that researchers have uncovered in many schools. Studies, like the 2011 report by the Council of State Governments, have found that white students are typically suspended for some specific offense, like fighting, while black students are often suspended for reasons like "defiance."
That kind of charge, Johnson said, "is about the mindset of the teacher. We're working hard on that." She said the school has done circles as part of training for teachers. The school also has implemented a program called the Positive Behavior Intervention System, which she said encourages "a shift to increasing positive behavior, not focusing on negative.
"Now, more teachers are asking for circles," Johnson continued. "There's more of trying to understand the reason behind the behavior."
Oakland school staffers also have had a chance to observe the effects of the county Juvenile Justice Program run through CommunityWorks. Principal Tranzor at Montera said that before she became a "firm believer" in restorative justice, two of her students went through the CommunityWorks program and it "impacted their lives tremendously.
"One had been in trouble before, the other headed down a scary path," she continued. "I had my reservations, but now they are both doing better academically and behaviorally. They have an opportunity to have a positive future."
Two other students, also "graduates" of the Juvenile Justice program, "are now leaders in my school," Tranzor added. "If someone shouts 'fight' and kids come running, these boys will get up and say, 'No, there's not, you guys need to go to class.' They took up leadership positions naturally. Two African-American boys. I couldn't be more proud. They have been the voice of maturity and reason, caused others to step up and take that role as well."
In the CommunityWorks program, which calls its restorative justice meetings "conferences," a young offender meets with his or her family members, the victim, CommunityWorks staffers, and often counselors, youth mentors, and other resource people — instead of being formally charged with a crime. Everyone takes a turn describing his or her experiences. Participants then agree on a six-month plan for the offender to heal the harm to the victim and the community. The repair "can be monetary, or the kid staying out of trouble in the future, or being part of a particular program. If they agree to pay the victim monetary compensation, the program helps the kid make a résumé and find a weekend or summer job to earn the money," said Oakland School Security Officer Moore. CommunityWorks staffers keep in touch with the youth to make sure they stay on track.
One student Moore described was caught selling marijuana at school — but his problems went beyond that, Moore said. "He wouldn't come to school for days, or would go to school first period and then be outside smoking marijuana. The school would suspend him — he didn't care. He had no respect."
After participating in the CommunityWorks program, Moore said, "he's attending classes, his grades have improved, he respects his mother — his mother came in and thanked me." This story, Moore said, is typical. And the change spreads from the offenders to their friends. Those who have gone through the process "are looking to set an example," Moore added.
When he first heard of restorative justice, Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Matthew Golde was skeptical. But he became an enthusiastic supporter after he attended several restorative justice conferences. "There's the kid, the parents are there," he said. "Most of the time the parents are not making excuses; I was impressed with the families. There's the victim or a surrogate. It's informal, not accusatory, a more supportive environment to start talking about what they did and why they did it. The kids have to take full responsibility. Hopefully, restorative justice can impact them better than we do in the adversarial system." With traditional approaches, he added, "our outcomes are not good."
The CommunityWorks program has been going less than a year and a half, so data on its efficacy are incomplete. But so far, said Executive Director Ruth Morgan, 25 youths have successfully completed their 6-month plans. None of the youths who completed their plans six months ago have re-offended. Another 47 youth have completed their conferences and are working on their plans. Only two have been sent back to the DA's Office for non-completion.
Despite his enthusiasm, Golde said he would be cautious about referring youth to restorative justice if they have committed serious crimes. "If it's a serious problem posing a danger to the community, there's something to be said for incapacitation," he said.
But Denise Curtis, who heads the restorative justice program for CommunityWorks, said her program has seen the process work just as well for serious crimes like assault. CommunityWorks estimates that 74 percent of the youth they have worked with have committed felonies.
Deputy District Attorney Allison Danzig, who refers young offenders to CommunityWorks, said she doesn't have set criteria. "It's a judgment call based on the severity of the case, what the victim wants, the age, the evidence." Restorative justice is intended for youth who acknowledge some level of guilt, not those who want a trial to prove their innocence.
Golde and the CommunityWorks staff both said a kid's chances of doing well are very much influenced by family and community factors. And some youth with serious or long-standing problems need more help. Jonathan Bradley of CommunityWorks described one participant who's "dealing with some issues not a lot of fifteen-year-olds have to deal with," including a drinking problem and estrangement from his family. After his conference he was arrested for shoplifting.
Since then, though, Bradley said, the young man has stayed out of trouble. He is volunteering at a community agency and working on finding a job. "I'm sure he'll finish his plan," Bradley said, but CommunityWorks does not have the resources to provide long-term "wraparound" support. "The most we can do is connect him with other resources."
Golde said, however, that most kids who go through the program can succeed. "With the right intervention," he said, the vast majority of kids "would be fine."
During the six months the youth work on their plans, the ongoing support of CommunityWorks staff is critical. For example, another student whose conference Officer Moore attended, "stole a purse and a laptop from a teacher," Moore said. At a restorative justice conference, "they made a contract: The young man agreed to pay the teacher back for the cost of what he took. They made a payment plan: The student got a part-time job on weekends and started to pay her back. The program shows children how to make a résumé, get a job, pay bills. It gives children an example of responsibility."
The conference itself also has an impact, Curtis said. Young offenders "get to meet with the person they've harmed. That can be powerful for them. [Hearing from the victim] really brings home that it's not just a thing, it's a human being who's been impacted in a really bad way by my actions. Then to be able to unload and say, 'I am sorry' — it's feeling that human connection that helps people want to do the right thing."
By bringing together victims, families, and other support people, the process "gives the community a model for dealing with crime in a way that they are empowered and given a voice," she added. "It's an opportunity for communities to rebuild and wrap their arms around their kids."
Tony Smith, the outgoing superintendent of Oakland public schools, is a strong proponent of restorative justice, and was a primary driver for implementing the program in about a dozen schools and establishing plans to expand it to twenty campuses this fall. And even though Smith is leaving the district on June 30 for family reasons, Oakland school officials say they are committed to keeping the program going — if they can secure long-term funding.
Currently, restorative justice coordinators are paid from a variety of sources, including a three-year federal School Improvement Grant and a grant from the City of Oakland's Fund for Children and Youth. The district coordinator of the program is paid with Medi-Cal funds for local educational agencies. In three schools, including Castlemont, the program is operated by the nonprofit Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, supported by The California Endowment and Oakland Measure Y funds. Currently the district itself has no money allocated for restorative justice from its general fund nor has the City of Oakland, other than from its Fund for Children and Youth, which is a restricted, limited fund within the city's general fund. In addition, Measure Y is scheduled to expire next year.
Yusem, the OUSD restorative justice coordinator, said it would cost up to $3 million a year to implement restorative justice programs in all of the district's ninety schools.
On the county level, Deputy DA Golde said he would like to see the Juvenile Justice system adopt restorative justice as a regular program, to expand its availability (the CommunityWorks program can handle only 95 kids a year), and give it a stable funding source. Currently, the program is funded by a grant from the California Board of State and Community Corrections that lasts for three years.
Beyond that, it's unclear where money will come from for local restorative justice programs. For now, many schools will likely continue to practice more traditional disciplinary methods, including out-of-school suspensions, despite the fact that research shows such practices can produce bad outcomes.
"The problem is it doesn't work; suspensions beget more suspensions," said OUSD Behavioral Health Manager McClung. "It's a strategy of marginalization. The more people are marginalized, the more they become a criminal element."
For years, McClung added, "we've operated on the principle that you can get rid of the bad kids and teach the good kids. That's why Oakland has one of the highest crime rates in the country. It turns out there's no way to get rid of people. They're in the community. It's better to build relationships with them — heal, coach, mentor."
Clarification: The City of Oakland's Fund for Children and Youth is a limited, restricted fund within the city's general fund.