“That’s not fair!” This phrase was uttered daily by many of the students in Oakland’s public school system. Even when they were caught in an act that violated school rules, students did not readily take responsibility for their actions. They were simply playing their role in our punitive system, in which most students tend to blame others rather than accept the consequences for their behavior. Our search for ways to change this paradigm led us to explore the practice of restorative justice.
During the fall of 2005, I (Rita) was employed by the Oakland Unified School District as a case manager working with students and their families who were referred for expulsion. As case managers with backgrounds in counseling and mental health, we were charged with finding alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. In December 2005, I was mandated to attend a four-day training on restorative justice, organized by a local community agency, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. The training was facilitated by Roca, a youth development agency from Chelsea, Massachusetts.
After completing the training, I was assigned to Cole Middle School and worked closely with the principal and assistant principal as a case manager for the school’s Pupil Disciplinary Hearing Panel. The administrators and I had several conversations about student suspensions and expulsions and lamented that the children returned to school showing no behavior changes. It was a vicious cycle, an unending revolving door. This situation exacerbated the already chaotic school culture of fights and defiance.
My job was to create a paradigm shift within the school context by introducing restorative justice as an alternative to the traditional discipline system. After my training with Roca, I returned renewed and ready to try this new way of working with student violations. The principal, having had several years of experience as an assistant principal, agreed that suspensions and expulsions did not work to change student behavior. Together, we began the restorative justice journey at Cole.
Harsh school discipline drives many students into juvenile and adult prisons. Students illustrated the school-to-prison pipeline at a Representing the Pipeline event in Chicago in July 2010. See suspensionstories.com.
I began the restorative justice educational process by offering support meetings for teachers to vent and reflect on their experiences with the students in the classroom. Many of them were in their first year, and classroom management was especially challenging. I built close relationships with several teachers and offered assistance to them in their classrooms whenever I could.
A circle meets at Cole Middle School in Oakland, California. The restorative justice pilot program at Cole, which Rita Alfred coordinated, was so effective in reducing suspensions, expulsions, and violence that staff at about twenty schools sought training and assistance to bring restorative practices to their sites. In large part due to these efforts, in January 2010, Oakland’s school board passed a resolution adopting restorative justice district-wide as official policy.
In August of 2006, after several planning meetings with the principal, we launched a year of training for the teachers. We unearthed conflicts among staff and used the restorative justice process to work through them. At the same time I was facilitating restorative circles with students and discipline conferences with students, families, administrators, and teachers when needed. We started out with a two-day training in August, negotiated a monthly staff training using the process, a follow-up two-day training in November, and another follow-up two-day training in the spring.
The staff built a closeness and willingness to work through differences. By the end of that year, the majority of the adults at Cole were ready to bring this new practice to the students and their families. We experienced some good results in the first year: a reduction in fights, suspensions, and referrals for expulsion. We also saw close to 100 percent retention of teachers—this was unprecedented as turnover was usually around 50 percent—with just one teacher leaving for higher studies. And we all experienced a more positive school culture.