‘Circle up’ instead of suspension

A restorative justice circle at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, Calif.

A restorative justice circle at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, California

“Instead of suspending or expelling students who get into fights or act out, restorative justice seeks to resolve conflicts and build school community through talking and group dialogue,” reports Eric Westervelt on NPR.

Oakland Unified, a large and very diverse California district, expanded its program “after a federal civil rights agreement in 2012 to reduce school discipline inequity for African-American students.”

At Edna Brewer Middle School, the first year was difficult, but  this year, students are willing to “circle up,” says Ta-Biti Gibson, the restorative justice co-director. “Instead of throwing a punch, they’re asking for a circle, they’re backing off and asking to mediate it peacefully with words.”

A few years ago, the school’s alternative discipline program failed because of “problems with teacher buy-in, training and turnover,” reports NPR. The staff is “struggling” with restorative justice, says Principal Sam Pasarow. Some teachers want to see stronger consequences for misbehavior.

Eva Jones, 12, says there have been fewer hurtful rumors and fights this year.

“It seems easier now to, like, make friends with people, because people are less angry and defensive,” she says. . . . Last year, “there was, like, a lot of fights — like, every other week there was a fight. And now there’s, like, a fight once per year. ”

Well … not quite.

About a half-hour later, I hear some yelling. In the gym, pushing and verbal sparring has descended into a full-blown fistfight between a seventh-grade boy and an eighth-grade girl.

The program’s director, (Kyle) McClerkins, has pinned the boy to the gym floor.

After a weekend “cooling off” time, the school schedules a “harm circle.” The combatants — Briona and Rodney — attend with her parents and his single mother.

Rodney’s mother says she’s worried about his anger problem and seeking counseling.

Briona’s mom, Marshae, says her older son went to counseling for his anger. “He just turned 18 in jail. You don’t want to go there,” Marshae tells Rodney.

Rodney shows some remorse with a whispered apology. But his mom is not satisfied and wants to know what’s going to change.

“What do you plan on doing to make sure these kinds of incidents don’t happen again?” she asks.

Rodney pauses. He thinks for a moment and answers in a quiet voice. “Like, I don’t play with people and stuff, I won’t horseplay and stuff like that.”

Then Briona admits she helped instigate by yanking his backpack and teasing.

. . . It’s agreed as a group that the two students will have to write and post anti-bullying posters and do after-school service. And they’ll have to do joint morning announcements offering tips on how students can get along better.

Districtwide, suspensions are down by half in Oakland schools that have fully adopted the program. Absenteeism is down too and graduation rates are up. At two schools, “the disproportionate discipline of African-American students was eliminated,” reports Westervelt.

Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver and other urban districts are trying variations of the approach.

Reading, ‘riting and wellness

Fifteen San Francisco high schools offer a wellness center where students can discuss depression, anger, anxiety, addiction or just stress.

In a recent districtwide survey of teachers who had referred students to Wellness Centers, three-quarters reported greater academic success. Eighty-six percent said they noticed that the students had improved emotional well-being.

“Our No. 1 need is more mental health clinicians,” said Jessica Stein Colvin, who runs the wellness center at Galilieo High. “There is mental health therapy happening here all the time. Every single clinical space is used every hour of the day.”

Rahsaan, a 17-year-old a senior at Galileo, broke up with his girlfriend last year. He is estranged from his parents and siblings — he has lived in the Bayview district with his disabled grandfather, whom he has cared for for more than 10 years.

Last semester, he said, his grades plummeted when he hit an emotional wall.

“I was outside and one of the teachers saw me crying and they brought me down here,” Rahsaan said. “Jessica and the other teacher stayed here after school to make sure I wasn’t going to harm myself or anything. It helped me a lot because I was, like, literally going to kick somebody’s ass and not care about the consequences.”

The wellness centers were started after the Columbine massacre, when many schools were trying to reach troubled teenagers. “We took an approach that was particular to random acts of violence and decided to go broad and provide a spectrum of services so we could reach as many students as possible,” said Kevin Gogin, director of School Health Programs.