Over the past few years, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) has quietly been undergoing a shift in disciplinary philosophy. As it has become more and more apparent that traditional discipline is often race-based and has catastrophic results, the OUSD has slowly and successfully been supplanting it with restorative justice. Restorative justice is a set of practices based on the philosophy that a caring environment where students learn conflict resolution is far more impactful than swift punishment.
“We’re really attempting to eliminate the disproportionate race-biased discipline,” David Yusem, the district’s restorative justice program manager, tells TakePart. “Punishments just alienate kids, and then teachers have to catch up. It’s top-down social control that doesn’t adjust for root causes. It doesn’t allow students to think about what they’ve done and be accountable or provide healing.”
In OUSD, approximately 34 percent of the student population is African American. However, this population makes up 67 percent of the referrals for suspension and 50 percent of referrals for expulsion, and 40 percent do not graduate. The majority of those who have dropped out since 2005 have ended up in the criminal justice system. “Things reach a tipping point and break open,” Yusem says.
Restorative justice, in which a victim is not punished but rather involved in a community amendment process and encouraged to take responsibility for his or her actions, is not a new concept. However, it is growing increasingly popular as an alternative in schools across the country where traditional discipline has been failing. Advocates say restorative justice is a solution that has obvious year-to-year results; critics claim restorative justice can be problematic by not quickly removing violent offenders from the hallways.
In 2007, restorative justice was tested at an Oakland middle school that had a high expulsion and suspension rates. Within three years, suspensions were reduced by 87 percent and there were no more expulsions. This year a three-tiered model of whole school restorative justice, which includes professional development and coaching, is being provided to 13 OESD pilot sites.
The three tiers include prevention, repairing harm and alternatives to suspension, and supported re-entry. Tier one is providing a caring environment for all students and letting them know they are important. Tier two substitutes suspensions for peer mediation, peer circle groups, and counseling. Tier three helps to give students who have been incarcerated or expelled from other schools a gracious and welcoming re-entry.
Yusem has teams who train the teachers and the students on how to create an environment that encourages group discussions, diffuses violent situations before they escalate, and includes family counseling and involvement.
Peer mediation—where the students talk to each another about another's infraction—is something many kids have not experienced. “Students tend to really like it,” Yusem says. “It gives them a voice, and teachers become more human to them. There may be a bit of dissonance at first because suddenly things are being done with them, not to them. Crime and punishment is so ingrained in our society, sometimes it’s hard to move past that.”
“But restorative justice is not soft,” he continues. “It’s really hard to stand in front of your community and admit what you’ve done and repair that.”
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