The two 9th-grade girls heard the laughing the minute they walked into their third-period class that December morning at Oakland’s Fremont High School. And they knew why: a video of one of the girls being slapped by a classmate had gone viral among students on social media.
It was one of those moments that could have gone bad in a hurry — like so many others had at Fremont High, a school that had more suspensions last year than any other in the Oakland Unified School District.
Both girls (whose names are being withheld to protect their privacy) acknowledged later that their first instinct was to lash out at their snickering classmates. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they left the classroom and walked down the hall to Tatiana Chaterji’s room.
Chaterji is Fremont High’s restorative justice facilitator and among a growing number of educators in Oakland Unified charged with changing the district’s approach to behavioral issues through restorative practices. This work departs from traditional school discipline in that it focuses less on punishment and more on righting wrongs and building healthy relationships within the school.
During the previous period, the two girls had participated in a community building circle, a cornerstone of restorative justice in which students gather in a circle, talk about the difficulties of their daily lives and work on responding to them in a healthier way.
“What would have happened had you stayed (in the classroom)?” Chaterji asked the girls after they had told her their story.
“They would have said some things, then I would have said some things…then things could have gotten ugly,” said the more assertive of the two, who was wearing an ankle monitor from the Alameda County Juvenile Probation Department.
Had things gotten out of hand, punches might have been thrown. That would’ve led to an office referral and perhaps suspensions. Such an outcome would be an unfortunate but not uncommon occurrence at Fremont, which, according to district data, suspended 151 students during the 2016-17 school year.
Fremont High hired Chaterji last summer as part of a larger effort to improve the school’s climate and cut down on suspensions. The school also employs three case managers who work to alleviate conflicts that crop up in classrooms before they become office referrals.
“People’s trust in the process is growing,” Chaterji said. “The leadership has really shifted to prioritize [restorative justice]…we are at an exciting moment, but it’s just the start.”
A new approach to an old problem
Small victories like the one that morning at Fremont High are being won to varying degrees in schools throughout California. Over the past decade, a mountain of research has shown that the so-called zero-tolerance approach to misbehavior, characterized by stringent rules and harsh punishments, largely doesn’t work.
In particular, studies have shown unequivocally that students of color are suspended and expelled at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers, which has forced a reassessment of school discipline in many places throughout the nation.
Teachers and administrators have come to realize that a student’s range of experiences — their home life, their neighborhood and the overall atmosphere of the school — has an outsized impact on their behavior in class. Research shows that by gaining insight into these experiences and building stronger relationships with students, educators can address a number of behaviors without having to resort to suspensions and other punitive methods of discipline.
This awakening, along with intense pressure on districts from the state in recent years to cut down on suspensions, have spawned a number of behavioral support programs under the umbrella of social/emotional learning, including Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS).
Interwoven in these approaches is the idea of restorative justice, which has both captured the imagination of many youth advocates and educators and generated controversy.
In recent years, some of the state’s largest districts have made significant investments in restorative justice:
- Oakland Unified budgeted roughly $2.5 million for restorative justice in the 2017-18 school year, which pays for 35 facilitators and a districtwide coordinator.
- The Los Angeles Unified School District budgets more than $10 million annually for restorative justice and has a goal of implementing the practices in each of its more than 900 schools by 2020.
- Following the lead of Los Angeles Unified, the San Diego Unified School District board last year approved a “School Climate Bill of Rights” that is centered on restorative practices. The board also approved a nearly $800,000 budget for restorative justice in 2017-18, which pays for a districtwide program manager along with several other staff members.
- The Santa Ana Unified School District received a multi-year, $3 million federal grant to implement restorative practices in schools throughout the district.
Although the terms restorative justice and restorative practices were largely unheard of in the school setting as recently as a decade ago, the work in many respects builds on conflict mediation strategies that schools have used since the 1990s.
Yet many see restorative justice as groundbreaking because at its core is a repudiation of the punitive model that has been the foundation of school discipline in this country since the days of the one-room schoolhouse.
Because their use in the school setting is so new, there is scant research on the long-term effectiveness of restorative practices. But officials in districts that have devoted significant resources to them say they’ve led directly to fewer suspensions and better school climates.
“We have seen a drastic reduction in suspensions and RJ (a commonly used shorthand for the practices) is a big reason for it,” said Deborah Brandy, Los Angeles Unified’s director of district operations, which oversees restorative justice programs.
“We’ve also seen a reduction in truancy rates…and it goes beyond the data. Parents feel more welcome at their school sites; students remarked (in climate surveys) that their teachers seem more caring.”
While awareness of restorative practices is high among school officials statewide, relatively few districts outside major urban centers have well-established programs, EdSource found through interviews and a survey.
The most common sentiment expressed among nearly a dozen superintendents, principals and other officials interviewed was cautious optimism, with the caveat that finding resources to devote to it is a challenge.
“There is certainly an interest and heightened awareness,” said Tamara Clay, who is director of the El Dorado County Special Education Local Plan Area. “And system change can be easier in small rural areas like ours — but it’s harder in that our superintendents don’t have the capacity.”
While it is difficult to find anyone — administrators, teachers, students or parents — who disagrees with the core principles of restorative justice, a fair number of critics say it’s been oversold as a quick fix. And, in some instances, they say it’s contributed to more chaotic school environments.
Los Angeles Unified’s efforts have drawn criticism from some teachers’ union officials who say the district has launched an aggressive implementation plan without sufficiently taking into account how the timetable is affecting students and teachers at the ground level.
“The LAUSD idea is that in three years’ time we’ll just train all the teachers and we’ll be done,” said Daniel Barnhart, who is vice president of secondary schools for United Teachers of Los Angeles. “It is a recipe for resentment and for teachers to not make a change they may want to make because there is no real support.”
Belia Saavedra, director of restorative justice in schools for the Long Beach-based California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ), said most teachers she works with embrace restorative justice — but she has encountered pockets of resistance in both Long Beach and Los Angeles schools.
“More than a few teachers will tell you that RJ is the removal of punishment without a replacement for accountability,” Saavedra said, referring to concerns that there aren’t sufficient consequences. “If RJ is coming to their school they see it as the wild, wild West.”
LA Unified’s Brandy does not dispute the reports of pushback, but says the concerns fade once teachers and administrators see the district’s commitment to the approach.
“Because the district has been very steadfast we are getting more and more buy-in,” Brandy said. “In the first year, we received a lot of pushback. In the second year, people started calling me, asking me ‘When am I going to get the RJ training?’”
Brandy’s assertions notwithstanding, the issues being raised are real and indicative of the pendulum swinging too quickly away from traditional discipline, argues Max Eden, a senior fellow specializing in education policy for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank based in New York City.
Eden says his research shows that students report feeling less safe when districts issue mandates to reduce suspensions and in their place offer alternatives like restorative justice and PBIS.
“There is more immediate evidence that the reforms are creating a crisis rather than solving one,” Eden said, pointing to studies done in New York City, Philadelphia and Virginia. “If it were being approached as a complement to traditional discipline I would be bullish, but given that it’s being looked at as a substitute, I’m bearish.”
Daniel Losen, who is director of UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies, takes issue with Eden’s arguments on a couple of levels.
First, Losen said Eden is cherry-picking indicators to make schools seem more unsafe than they actually are. Secondly, he sees in Eden a failure to acknowledge that there is strong evidence showing that suspensions and other isolating punishments are harmful to students, especially students of color.
“No one wants the reform efforts to yield something worse than before,” Losen said. “But we have to reject the status quo. Schools are doing things that are harmful to kids right now, and we need to stop that — their civil rights are being violated.”
A winding road to progress
It is because of disagreements like the one between Eden and Losen that Sonia Llamas, Santa Ana Unified’s assistant superintendent for school performance and culture, spends a lot of her time documenting her district’s success with restorative practices and showing how they help its bottom line.
Five years ago, Santa Ana Unified had nearly 9,800 days of suspensions, Llamas said, which cost the district about $680,000 because state funding is calculated based on average daily enrollment. Since then, thanks to a grant from the federal Department of Education, the district has invested more than $3 million in restorative justice and related programs and seen its suspensions drop by 75 percent.
“People can talk a good talk, but you need strong data to show what’s working,” Llamas said. “It is really hard to cut something that is showing impact.”
That being said, Llamas and other proponents emphasize that transforming a school’s climate and culture often happens in fits and starts and requires commitment and patience from schools and communities.
“The ability to do RJ is based on where a school and its community are at and start from there,” said David Yusem, Oakland Unified’s restorative justice coordinator. “Right now, there are some schools, just like some communities, that are ready for RJ and it can come in really nicely. Then there are other schools that are fractured and it’s tough to implement it.”
John Jones III recently moved to Oakland from Portland and his son, a 9th-grader at Fremont High, has had trouble adjusting to his new school. Jones, who works for a community group as a restorative justice facilitator, said the school’s handling of altercations his son had with a teacher showed the progress Fremont has made as well as how far it still has to go.
“My biggest critique is that I wasn’t notified of the situation until months afterwards,” Jones said. “Once there is the first inkling of a problem, parents should be brought in…the old proverb is true, it does take a village to raise a child — and it’s important that everyone is on the same page.”
While they acknowledge their progress has not gone in a straight line, the staff at Fremont High feel they are slowly getting on the same page. The school is on track to cut suspensions in half from last year, said Co-Principal Tom Skjervheim.
“Part of the challenge is we have lots of students who need support in any given day,” Skjervheim said. “[But] now that we have a system where RJ can live — it is setting us up for more success.”
When asked whether she learns more from being suspended or going through restorative justice when she gets in trouble for fighting, the 9th-grade girl who had sought Chaterji’s counsel after the problems in her third-period class rolled her eyes. “It’s all a waste of time,” she said.
But when pressed further, she gave a clear-headed comparison of the two approaches.
“I could be getting into a fight with someone and get suspended. Then I come back and it could still be a fight,” she said. “If I don’t get suspended and we talk it out, there is a higher chance of there being no more problems.”
This story is the first of a three-part series on restorative justice in California which originally appeared on EdSource.org