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A People-Focused Solution

Restorative justice programs may offer the best new hope for reducing violence in Oakland schools and the city overall, but their future funding is uncertain.



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"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.

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