EDITOR'S NOTE: The following news feature was written as the first in a collaborative series between The Fresno Bee and The Know Youth Media, looking at the impact of Restorative Justice programs in schools.
In a West Oakland classroom, a group of high school students is reinventing the city. Their task: Figure out how to scrub the violence from Oakland’s hard-knock streets by 2022.
“Peace Land,” they call it.
They know it’s an impossible task.
“We’re actually dreaming,” said Eric Butler, a counselor who teaches the class, “because most of our kids have been taught to stop dreaming.”
This is Oakland Unified’s Ralph Bunche High, a last-chance continuation school where most students have spent their short lives in and out of school and jail, battered by the violence and poverty that surrounds them.
The exercise is part of Butler’s conflict mediation class, one component of the school’s restorative justice program that has reduced suspensions by about 50% in the past couple years. Restorative justice is a process that works to improve student behavior through mediation and building trusting relationships between adults and kids.
This year, Butler is determined to have zero suspensions. Never mind the iron bars across the windows, security guards blocking the school entrance and police officers who stroll the hallway. Never mind that on this Tuesday morning after Labor Day, students came to school with stories about who they beat up, who beat them up, the drugs they did and the drugs their parents did over the weekend.
“We don’t have a kid problem, we have an adult problem,” Butler said. “We should feel bad about it enough to do something about it.”
Oakland Unified’s restorative justice program has gained national attention after suspension rates dropped by 40% at some schools and almost 90% at others.
Oakland Unified passed a 2010 resolution supporting restorative justice and began working with nonprofit Restorative Justice of Oakland Youth (RJOY) to get programs off the ground. Butler, who works for RJOY, is among the counselors who have helped start programs at 13 schools.
Fresno Unified, in its own effort to repair chronically high dropout and suspension rates, has paid close attention. Fresno may be ready to dream up its own “Peace Land.”
The district is inching toward a restorative justice model that advocates say could improve graduation rates, give more youth a shot at college, and begin to address some of Fresno’s social and economic plagues. The change will be slow and costly, and it comes with risks. Critics say violent schools could become more unruly, putting teachers and students in danger and forcing dropout rates to climb ever higher.
But the alternative, say some students and educators, is more of the same — a discipline policy that fuels anger and frustration in schools, pushes struggling students to drop out, perpetuates racism and sends the message that if you mess up, just once, you’ll be forever labeled “the bad kid.”
Done correctly, restorative justice is not a matter of ending suspensions, according to Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson. Nor should it be seen as “soft on misbehavior.”
“Kids don’t get to bring guns to school,” he said. “They don’t get to bring drugs in a package for sale to school.” Those types of offenses “will be dealt with swiftly and severely.”
But in some cases, restorative justice can teach lessons that resonate into adulthood, Hanson said.
“There is a lot of work we can do to help students become stewards of their own behavior and decision-making.”
Ankle-deep in change
The push for restorative justice here started with a group of Fresno youths who came together two years ago to explore alternatives to the district’s zero-tolerance discipline policy that has created sky-high suspension rates in some schools. As the district’s dropout problem came to the fore over the past year, the youth movement gained traction.
During that time, Hanson has met with Oakland Unified Superintendent Tony Smith, the California Endowment and Ron Claassen, a restorative justice trailblazer at Fresno Pacific University, to explore ways to change how Fresno Unified disciplines.
The Graduation Task Force, a group of 38 community leaders selected by Hanson early this year, named restorative justice as one of several recommended solutions to keep kids in school and on track to graduate.
There’s talk of a pilot project, but the timeline is uncertain: “My initial hope was to go much bigger, much faster,” Hanson said. But he’s since realized the district doesn’t yet have the money, manpower or expertise to roll out a full-blown restorative justice program for a district of 74,000 students anytime soon.
For now, the district is “between ankle- and knee-deep” in the change, Hanson said. Coming up will be policy discussions by the school board and new programs at some school sites. Anti-bullying efforts already under way involve some aspects of restorative justice.
Districts across the state, recognizing the societal cost of soaring suspension rates, have adopted restorative justice practices. Students who are suspended are three times more likely to drop out by the 10th grade, according to research from Harvard University.
Los Angeles, San Francisco, Raisin City and Immanuel Schools in Reedley are among the districts pioneering restorative justice practices. Ryan Wood, superintendent of Immanuel, a group of private, Christian schools, said the transition was not simple.
He said finding the right answer to each student’s behavior problems “wasn’t easy and still isn’t easy today.”
Oakland Unified’s Butler cautions school leaders not to overthink it. If you can listen and you can forgive, he says, then you can do restorative justice.
“I think all good people do restorative justice all of their lives, they just haven’t had anything to call it,” he said.
A tradition of suspension
While new to most California school districts, restorative justice has been a long-standing practice in the juvenile justice system here. For the past three decades, Fresno County has used restorative justice through the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program, a voluntary mediation program that teaches youth offenders how to take responsibility for their crimes, change their behavior and make things right with their victims.
Statistics from 2009-10 showed that young people who completed VORP were three times less likely to break the law again than those who did not go through the program.
Restorative justice is trickier to do in schools — particularly in a large, urban district serving kids from some of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods. It requires attitude and behavior changes from the whole district — a transformation of habits in everyone, Hanson said.
Fresno Unified would have to create new discipline policies and train its 10,000 or so employees to react to misbehaving kids very differently than they have for decades. Parents, guardians and the community would have to buy in and do their part, too. It’s a process that demands a lot of time and, for many, a leap of faith.
“We were the city of Three Strikes,” Hanson said. “We didn’t talk about restoration. This is literally a zero to 60 kind of conversation.”
Suspensions in Fresno Unified have declined steadily since Hanson’s arrival in 2005, but they still are relatively high. The district was criticized for excessive suspensions and expulsions in an April report from the Council of the Great City Schools, a document that Hanson says will dictate many district changes over the next year.
While Hanson is pleased that fewer kids are being kicked out, he says there’s a bigger issue.
“I have never said to folks that we’re about trying to decrease the number of expulsions and suspensions,” he said. “We’re trying to decrease the behaviors that lead to expulsions and suspensions.”
The numbers, however, are jarring.
In 2010-11, the district had 14,653 suspensions and 493 expulsions. Long Beach Unified, which is often compared to Fresno Unified for its size and diversity, had 2,504 suspensions and 17 expulsions. As a percentage of the total student population, Fresno Unified had four times more suspensions than Los Angeles Unified that year.
More than one in 10 Fresno Unified students are likely to be suspended during their schooling, and students of color are suspended at a higher rate than their white peers, according to data from the University of California at Los Angeles’ Civil Rights Project. Almost one in four black students is likely to be suspended; American Indians follow closely at almost one in five.
California education code requires that schools expel students who commit the most dangerous offenses, such as sexual assault or bringing a weapon to school. Most everybody — including Oakland’s Butler — agrees these students shouldn’t be in school. But districts do have discretion over more minor offenses, such as fights, threats, swearing and stealing, and that’s where some say Fresno Unified is too punitive.
“There are thousands of kids who are being removed from school for non-threatening things,” said Brandon Wright, interim executive director for the Center for Multicultural Cooperation, a youth leadership organization with an office in Fresno. “We’re throwing them away.”
Students become criminals for non-violent behavior and, once suspended, they can’t shake the label of “bad kid,” Wright said. An even bigger blow to their confidence is that they fall behind in their classes.
“They’re coming back to school feeling more inferior than before, maybe not as smart,” Wright said. “It’s not setting them up for success.”
Not everyone is ready to curtail suspensions. Some educators say suspensions are necessary to keep schools safe and worry that restorative justice will allow violent students to put their peers and teachers in danger.
Greg Gadams, a teacher at Hamilton Elementary and vice president of the Fresno Teachers Association, said restorative justice could help students make better choices, but FUSD also needs tougher discipline policies to repair its most violent schools.
Gadams points to Tehipite Middle School, which he said has become a “powder keg” in the past couple of years. He said some students have attacked and injured teachers, and come to school armed with box cutters.
“There have been so many bloody fights and massive behavior problems,” he said.
In 2010-11, Tehipite had 435 suspensions out of a student enrollment of 507, one of the highest rates of any Fresno Unified school. More than one-third of those suspensions were for violence — a rate that one state Department of Education official called alarming. Seven students were expelled that year after assaulting school employees.
Tehipite was the only school in the district at risk of being designated “persistently dangerous” by the California Department of Education in 2010-11 because of the high rate of violence. In the past decade or so, the state has designated only one school persistently dangerous — an alternative school in Sacramento.
Hanson said things are improving at Tehipite, with more staff training and a focus on engaging students and parents in problem-solving. Suspensions and expulsions, while still high, are down, he said.
Changing violent behavior requires more time and resources than Fresno Unified can muster, said Gabriel Hernandez with Youth for Christ, a faith-based organization that offers programs and mentoring for youths.
“You’ve got a 14-year-old kid, it took him 14 years to get that bad,” Hernandez said. A two-year restorative justice program in a junior high school can’t reverse that, he said.
Hanson acknowledges that the challenge is steep and restorative justice isn’t a cure-all. But, he says, “There’s a lot of room for us to potentially have an impact.”
Some FUSD students say suspensions and expulsions could be avoided if teachers and principals took time to talk to them. Kids bring to school all the dysfunction from home, and it shows in their behavior — a student who is hungry, abused or had a parent sent to prison will unload stress by acting out in school.
“They have chaos in their life,” said FUSD middle school teacher Steven Jaurena. “If their parents are constantly cussing and swearing at them at home, then that’s what they know. If their parents are constantly angry with them, then that’s how they will behave. If they’re getting whacked at home, then their first response when they get angry is to whack someone else.”
Eighth-grader Corey Hogan and his friends at Tehipite say everybody they know gets suspended, usually for fighting. Corey said he was kicked out because he had a design shaved in his hair that a teacher thought was a gang symbol. Corey says he isn’t in a gang, but his teacher didn’t believe him.
Tehipite student John Ware said he’s been suspended more than 20 times for fighting, swearing and talking back. But he’s been doing better, say his youth mentors at the Boys and Girls Club.
When asked why he swears at his teachers, John, 14, said it’s because he doesn’t like them. Or maybe it’s that they don’t like him, he said; they think he’s stupid.
Hanson admits there hasn’t been a lot of trust between students, teachers, administrators and parents, and some kids are left feeling like they’re in a daily battle with adults.
“We have to have better, more consistent, higher quality relationships between adults and kids,” Hanson said. “Adults need to do more to guide and support students. You could build the argument that kids need to be more respectful, but we’ve got to do better about setting the table for what the expectations are for respect, and then help students get there, instead of smacking them for not getting there.”
When Butler arrived at Bunche High in fall 2011, he immediately set about improving adult-student relationships. By several measurements, he’s been successful — last year’s seniors pay him regular visits and students pop into his classroom throughout the day to talk. Butler said he’s helped some teachers and staff repair relationships with students.
“The most important thing in restorative justice is building relationships,” he said.
The core of Butler’s program is the twice-weekly discussion circles, where students talk through their fears and frustrations without worrying about being judged or punished. They learn to trust Butler and their peers, which helps to minimize racial tensions and rivalries.
Butler said the circles help him spot problems early, before they lead to bad behavior.
“When you’re in the circle, you can’t get censored,” he said. “This is a place where they can come in, and put everything on the table without being muzzled. They can release all of it, and then they don’t have do it in algebra.”
Many of these youths have been thrown in jail, stabbed, shot or on drugs, and Butler’s circle might be the first time time they’ve been invited to talk about it.
“They leave and come home from school and they’re stepping over dead bodies,” Butler said. “Someone they know gets killed at least once a month, and no one even asks them how they are doing.”
Cameron Simmons arrived at Bunche his senior year after bouncing between three high schools. He said he was routinely suspended for fighting from the first through 11th grade — he has been in the middle of dozens of bloody school riots. But everything changed when a principal sent Simmons to Butler’s circle on his first day of school.
“Eric teaches you to have more self control,” he said. “Don’t just blow up because you have to think about it.”
Simmons, 18, said he hasn’t fought since that first circle. He graduated in June, got his first steady job — at In-N-Out Burger — and signed up for community college courses.
“It’s crazy when I think about all the stuff I did in my past to where I am now,” Simmons said. “I’m not that person on the street trying to hurt people anymore. I’m more of that person trying to help people.”
Before Butler’s program, no amount of suspensions taught Simmons to stop fighting.
“It doesn’t work,” Simmons said. “All you’re doing is kicking me out of school for five days. The only thing that’s doing is putting me behind in my work. It’s not really doing anything about my situation. I look at it as ‘OK, OK, I got a five-day vacation if I punch you in the face.’ “
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