Oakland first introduced the program in 2006 at its Cole Middle School. District leaders planned to close the school due to low test scores when it started a restorative justice pilot program. In the three years since embracing the practice, suspensions dropped by 87%, violence decreased dramatically and expulsions became non-existent. The district took notice and in 2009, it overhauled its system and made restorative justice the new model for handling disciplinary problems. In 2011 it hired a program manager and created a system to roll it out to all the schools in the district.

Restorative justice is a revolutionary program based on respect, responsibility, relationship-building and relationship-repairing. It focuses on mediation and agreement rather than punishment. It aims to keep kids in school and to create a safe environment where learning can flourish. And it appears to be working incredibly well.

“Restorative justice is a fundamental change in how you respond to rule violations and misbehavior,” said Ron Claassen, a pioneer of the program and Director of Restorative Justice in Schools. “The typical response to bad behavior is punishment. Restorative justice resolves disciplinary problems in a cooperative and constructive way.”

If a student misbehaves and a restorative justice system is in place, the offending student is given the chance to come forward and make things right. He sits down in a circle and works together with the teacher and the affected parties to work it out.

To facilitate the process, the teacher or mediator asks non-judgmental, restorative questions like, “What happened? How did it happen? What can we do to make it right?” Through their discussions, they all gain a better understanding as to what happened, why it happened and how the damage can be fixed. “They’ll talk about what can be done to repair the harm,” Yurem said about the process at OUSD, “They’ll come up with a plan and fulfill that plan. And hopefully the relationship will be stronger. It’s really all about relationships—building and repairing them.”

In Oakland, schools are using a three-tiered model of prevention/intervention/supported reentry. The first tier is all about community building as a preventive measure. They have regular classroom circles in which the students sit in with a restorative justice coordinator or a peer facilitator and share their inner most feelings.

“The circles are based on indigenous practices that value inclusiveness, respect, dealing with things as a community and supporting healing,” Yurem explained. “Kids really resonate with this process. I’ve seen kids share things that I was extremely surprised by, like eighth grade boys talking about what scares them. To seem weak in their world is a life-threatening thing so I was really impressed.” All of this sharing builds the foundation in which restorative discipline thrives. The second tier is intervention, in which teachers use restorative discipline practices like mediation and family/group circles to discuss and mend the harm that was done.

And the final tier supports the reentry of students who have been out of school due to suspension, expulsion, truancy or incarceration. Oakland schools aim to create a “wraparound” supportive environment when these students return. The goal is to set the kids up for success no matter what their past.

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