This week, we have another guest post, submitted by David Yusem and Yari Ojeda Sandel who work on Oakland Unified School District’s Restorative Justice Program. Read on to learn more about the powerful impact of this program in Oakland schools and on students.
At Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), we are implementing whole school Restorative Justice (RJ) at many of our schools to build community, repair harm, and provide personalized support for a student re-entering a school after a prolonged absence. Restorative Justice is a program that focuses on building and strengthening relationships. As such, RJ frames wrong-doing or crime as a violation of relationships and seeks to repair any damage that may have been inflicted on relationships by those types of actions.
One recent story stands out as an illustrative example of the power of RJ in transforming conflict.
Two girls, once friends, got into a fight at one of our middle schools. It was violent, and took place in front of several members of the school including the Assistant Principal. The two girls were suspended. The school community grappled with rumors circulating about the circle of friends around the two girls. The situation worsened to the point that there were six girls who wanted to fight each other – all who used to be friends.
The Power of Circles
The RJ Coordinator on site brought the six girls into a circle to temper the fear and anger boiling up amongst them so that they could make it to Friday, when the two girls were to return from suspension. Drawn from the practices of native cultures, circles are inclusive spaces that create opportunities for participants to build community, have equitable dialogue, respond to harm or conflict, hold offenders accountable by allowing them to understand the impact of their actions on others, and repair the damage of that harm to the extent possible. Participants sit in a circle and take turns speaking as they pass around a “talking piece” (a designated object) that allows them to share. Every circle begins with an “opening,” in which the facilitator or leader shares a reading such as a poem or a quote that signals the creation of a separate space from the rest of the day. The opening is followed by the development of shared guidelines and norms and the identification of shared values. After the circle dialogue takes place, there is a “closing” and participants consciously leave the circle and return to their previous environment.
Throughout the week, the rumors continued and other students started to become involved. The girls sought support from teachers to help them manage their anger. The community was tense; the girls were distracted from academics and afraid. Tension continued to build until the two suspended students arrived back on campus. Three of the other girls came to school in sweats that day, ready to fight. The other three girls were afraid to go anywhere on the campus. In partnership with two teachers, the RJ Coordinator provided safe spaces for the groups to remain apart while she met with the two central girls, working individually with each first, then together.
Accountability and Healing
Due to her efforts, the girls were able to understand the impact of their actions, not just on themselves, but upon their friends, the Assistant Principal, and the school community. They created a plan to repair the harm they caused. They wanted to plan a circle to bring their friends together to discuss the incident. They designed the questions that would be asked and met with their friends separately to discuss the process. Ultimately all the girls affected, including the suspended students, participated in a circle to repair the harm among their friends. By the end, they all felt closer and could laugh again. Together, they planned and facilitated another larger circle to create a feeling a safety on campus again. A teacher involved in this process wrote the following to the RJ Coordinator:
“The girls did an INCREDIBLE job today running the follow up circle. I was so impressed, not only with the maturity and honesty of the girls, but with the process itself. After today, I am even more of a believer in RJ. Thank you so much for empowering our students to take accountability for their actions and value the importance of honesty and integrity.”
While an evaluation of the OUSD RJ program is ongoing, discipline data from OUSD schools seem to indicate that RJ is having an impact on schools and improving school climates:
Ralph J. Bunche Continuation School reduced its overall suspension rate from 12% in 2011 to 8% in 2012, and reduced its African American male suspension rate from 19% in 2011 to just 7% in 2012. Bunche eliminated disproportionality in African American male suspensions (8% overall, 7% African American males), and cut its overall suspension rate by more than half.
McClymonds High School reduced its overall suspension rate from 25% in 2011 to 15% in 2012, and reduced its African American male suspension rate from 34% in 2011 to just 17% in 2012. McClymonds eliminated disproportionality in African American male suspensions (15% overall, 17% African American males), and cut its African American male suspension rate by half.
West Oakland Middle School reduced its overall suspension rate from 49% in 2011 to just 13% in 2012, and reduced its African American male suspension rate from 68% in 2011 to just 13% in 2012. West Oakland Middle School reduced its overall suspension rate by more than two-thirds, and reduced its African American male suspension rate by almost as much.
For more information, take a look at the Oakland Unified School District’s Restorative Justice program’s website or contact David Yusem, Program Manager, at firstname.lastname@example.org.