“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.