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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.