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.

David Washburn / EdSource

Tatiana Chaterji, the restorative justice facilitator at Fremont High School in the Oakland Unified School District.

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.

Tatiana Chaterji

A community building circle in Tatiana Chaterji’s classroom at Fremont High School in the Oakland Unified School District.

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.”

Too much too soon?

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?’”

Jule Leopo

The restorative justice room at Roosevelt High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

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.”

“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.”

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 was updated on M​ay 14, 2018 to reflect a name correction.

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  1. Stephen Cruz 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    This is another example of how the top-down approach to education policy is disempowering teachers. There is an inherent disconnect between administrators and teachers in regards to effective school discipline. The classroom teacher wants to maintain a safe and engaging classroom environment so that ALL STUDENTS have the opportunity to learn. When even one student sets out to willfully disrupt the class, he or she may be doing so in response to a variety of … Read More

    This is another example of how the top-down approach to education policy is disempowering teachers. There is an inherent disconnect between administrators and teachers in regards to effective school discipline. The classroom teacher wants to maintain a safe and engaging classroom environment so that ALL STUDENTS have the opportunity to learn. When even one student sets out to willfully disrupt the class, he or she may be doing so in response to a variety of circumstances that they are disfunctionally trying to address, some of which have no connection to the school environment. There should be many more resources available to these students to address their needs, meanwhile students that are actively engaged in learning should have their educational opportunities protected so that they can achieve their academic goals. In order to maintain a safe and sustainable learning environment, it should still be within the teacher’s purview to have the disruptive student removed. In my 15 years in the classroom I have witnessed incidents wherein administrator ignored the teacher’s concerns and let disruptive students stay in the classroom with no consesquences to the great disadvantage of the teacher and students that are engaged in learning. Restorative justice is what we get when policy is written by politicians to get votes, or administrators that have little or no classroom exlperience, in effect you have a disempowered
    teacher force that is tasked with improving educational acheivement while effectively having their hands tied with respect to maintaining a viable learning environment for all students.

  2. Lynn 1 month ago1 month ago

    I work in a k-8 in Santa Ana Unified School District and all my teacher friends at my school and many other schools and I agree....it is not working! Why is it that people who are out of the classroom think it works? First of all, all behavior is not equal and each case is different. When we need help dealing with a child, please help and don't just think making the kids … Read More

    I work in a k-8 in Santa Ana Unified School District and all my teacher friends at my school and many other schools and I agree….it is not working!
    Why is it that people who are out of the classroom think it works? First of all, all behavior is not equal and each case is different. When we need help dealing with a child, please help and don’t just think making the kids say sorry or have a talking circle will work. The talking circles are not working because you place kids together and expect things will be honestly discussed?
    The bully or offending student is just snickering. I have been in a few RJ circles, and the kids say what they know will end the process and in the end the issues between kids still continues. The people running the RJ talks are not very well trained and need more time to learn the skill. It is painful to watch the script being read and then see the “mic” passed. Next question is asked and same thing.
    Don’t get me wrong: I see the value of talking it out, digging into the personal issues and helping kids deal with things in their lives better. But kids also need to see a very clear line with bad behavior and have consequences that matter. We are letting all the little things of behavior pass so the larger behavior problems are increasing and any child on the edge of misbehaving sees nothing is happening to others so they are emboldened to misbehave. It is the classic “broken window” effort that is not happening. Take care of the small things and have expectations that are clear and enforced is a better way. RJ alone is not working!
    Counseling is increasing in our district but the need is so much more. RJ is a good effort but it needs to be in conjunction with maintaining consequences for inappropriate behavior. Willful defiance and lack of respect are getting out of control and so are fights, bullying, and general lack of respect for others and teachers.
    Suspensions are down because nothing is done. Principals are directed to bring down the suspension rate so they do but the issues are welling up in the class and learning is lost for the others. The problems stay in the class and it is very disruptive to all the kids who are trying to learn. There has to be a better way and a meeting in the middle of zero tolerance and restorative justice is needed.
    That is my two cents as a person in the trenches who loves teaching and working with our wonderful kids in Santa Ana. We have good kids who work hard and love school, but we need help with the ones who struggle and make it hard in the classroom. A balance is truly needed.

  3. Marybeth Murray 1 month ago1 month ago

    This article was an absolute joy to read. As an Assistant Principal in a large urban district, this brings validity to the work I do everyday. Thank you.

  4. Paul 1 month ago1 month ago

    As is so often the case, this article fails to distinguish teacher-initiated in-school suspension under CA Ed. Code 48910 from administrator-initiated out-of-school suspension under CA Ed. Code 48900, first sentence. Both share the same list of grounds, CA Ed. Code 48900, Paragraphs (a) through (t). Because the state legislature and local school boards have focused their clumsy reforms on willful disruption and defiance, at CA Ed. Code 48900(k), they have unwittingly made it contrary to state … Read More

    As is so often the case, this article fails to distinguish teacher-initiated in-school suspension under CA Ed. Code 48910 from administrator-initiated out-of-school suspension under CA Ed. Code 48900, first sentence. Both share the same list of grounds, CA Ed. Code 48900, Paragraphs (a) through (t).

    Because the state legislature and local school boards have focused their clumsy reforms on willful disruption and defiance, at CA Ed. Code 48900(k), they have unwittingly made it contrary to state law, local school board policy, and/or the safety of one’s career, for a teacher to send a student to the office during class.

    Journalists should challenge suspension foes to be honest about whether they are targeting out-of-school suspension, as they claim, or also enjoining in-school suspension, which they don’t readily admit.

    Restorative justice, if carried out in a serious way, is potentially useful, but teachers need the flexibility to remove students from class at the time of a disruption.

  5. Martha Varela 1 month ago1 month ago

    I have recently conducted a graduate level research study on the landscape of Restorative Justice in California and in the nation. I can say, with confidence, based on the research I have conducted, that California is making a difference with their restorative justice efforts. My recommendation to those who are not in agreement, please take more time to learn the history of restorative justice, from an indigenous perspective, to fully learn and understand … Read More

    I have recently conducted a graduate level research study on the landscape of Restorative Justice in California and in the nation. I can say, with confidence, based on the research I have conducted, that California is making a difference with their restorative justice efforts. My recommendation to those who are not in agreement, please take more time to learn the history of restorative justice, from an indigenous perspective, to fully learn and understand what restorative justice really is. It is much more than just a program, but a holistic way of thinking and to be completely honest, not everyone is ready for this deeper conversation, especially with the racism that exists in many of our schools.
    As Daniel Losen states above, something drastically needs to change. Suspensions do more harm than good, especially for children of color, whose rights are being violated. Lets look to California, its successes and failures, as a model for other states to learn from. There is plenty of new, quality research that proves how restorative justice is making a huge impact on the lives of children, families and communities all across the state of California, a state that represents the true diversity of the this country.
    Hats off to all those who are working hard to incorporative restorative justice as an alternative to traditional punitive school discipline that is not working for todays children!!

    Replies

    • ann 1 month ago1 month ago

      Link to your research?

  6. Patricia Arabia 1 month ago1 month ago

    Beautiful progress, thank you for this report on Peace activism

  7. Shahid 1 month ago1 month ago

    impressive contents .i am daily visitor just for that because quality