Highlight on: RJOY and Oakland Unified School District
Interview with Fania Davis, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY)
In 2011-2012, 46,377 students were enrolled in Oakland Unified School District schools. Of those students, 41% are Hispanic or Latino, 31% are African American, 13% are Asian, 9% are white, 2% each are multiracial or unreported, 1% are Pacific Islander and less than 1% are American Indian. In 2009, the Oakland Unified Board resolved to adopt Restorative Justice as a district-wide, preventative discipline policy. Click here for more information about the Restorative Justice Initiative Resolution.
Why was Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY) formed and how did RJOY bring Restorative Justice into Oakland schools?
We created RJOY because we wanted to shift the culture in Oakland away from knee-jerk punitive responses to youthful wrongdoing that replicate harm instead of healing it. From the beginning, we had a triple focus: sow the seeds of restorative justice in our schools, communities, and juvenile justice system.
Former Oakland City Council member Nancy Nadel, Oakland community activist Aeeshah Clottey, and I founded RJOY in 2005. That same year we gave a training about RJ. One of the attendees was a counselor at Cole Middle School (Cole). She was taken with RJ. On a volunteer basis, she conducted some circles at Cole Middle, which quickly resulted in good outcomes such as elimination of violence and reduced suspensions and expulsions. Nancy was impressed by this data. With her assistance, RJOY applied for and received a Measure Y grant to launch pilot a program at Cole in 2007. Measure Y provides funding in Oakland for violence prevention programs for high-risk youth and young adults. Measure Y continues to fund our work in two West Oakland schools today.
What are the goals of RJ in a school?
When fully implemented as a whole school approach, the goal is to effect a culture shift where all members of the school community respond to conflict in healing instead of punitive ways. Instead of punishing and excluding the young person who breaks school rules or causes harm, RJ seeks to involve all affected persons in a shared process to address needs, fulfill obligations, and repair the harm that was caused. The essence of the work is relationship building, community building. So we do a lot of proactive work meant to create a strong, healthy, and nurturing school community where students and teachers can thrive. Of course, to be successful, family and community engagement is an important piece.
It’s important to understand that RJ is not just something you do when something bad happens. Although we do use it to respond to wrongdoing and as an alternative to zero tolerance discipline, we also use it proactively, like in-classroom check-in circles, to help develop the kind of strong relationships and common values that will make it less likely that harm will occur in the first place. RJ is not just an intervention to be used for our youth; it is for the entire school and community. RJ is for teachers, site administrators, school security officers, care providers, CBO’s, and students and their families because all these people and their relationships are an integral part of the ecology of learning. So RJOY’s primary goal is to help develop the capacity of everyone at the school site to engage restorative strategies. If we do our job successfully, in a few years we can walk away, but the work will go on.
How did you convince the administration at Cole Middle and other schools to allow RJOY to come into the schools?
It’s all about relationship-building, consistently doing the work, and fidelity to the model.
Because we were seeing such strong results at Cole Middle School, one of the RJOY board members, who is also an Oakland Unified School Board Member, offered a Board Resolution, which would launch a district-wide RJ initiative. Youth also did organizing work around it. In January 2010, OUSD passed the RJ resolution unanimously, and OUSD supported the policy by hiring a full time RJ Manager and Coordinators at an increasing number of sites over the years since.
I believe the administration at Cole required the counselor, Rita Alfred, to attend our RJ training. Initially, she was a reluctant participant, but after the training she was eager to do the work and share her excitement about it. A huge part of the success at Cole was the relational approach – developing strong relationships with people at the school site. Rita was supportive of teachers and administrators while engaging responsive and proactive restorative strategies that were clearly effective. Ultimately suspension rates were reduced by 87% and violence eliminated. Students were learning that there were different ways to address conflict. Word got out about the successes of the Cole pilot, and a number of other schools requested training.
Based on these on-the-ground accomplishments and RJOY’s overall advocacy and training efforts, coupled with a youth organizing campaign initiated by Youth Together, the Oakland Unified School District Board in 2010 adopted RJ as official discipline policy and as a means of creating a more healthy and nurturing school community. OUSD has since hired a full-time RJ Manager for the District and RJ Coordinators have been hired at several school sites.
How does RJOY help a school implement the RJ policy?
We have a conference with administration and discuss RJOY’s responsibilities, school site administrative responsibilities, teacher responsibilities, and the outcomes that the school wants. People from the district also come to this conference at the school. We make sure we all have a meeting of minds before the school year begins.
We then write a letter of understanding. This document sets out the responsibilities and roles of the school site administration and the RJOY school coordinator. For example, a school might arrange for all staff to receive RJ training and regular continuing education, create an RJ site leadership team, and create an RJ discipline matrix with protocols for classroom managed versus office managed discipline. The RJOY school coordinator’s duties include facilitating Circles, Conferences and other processes as alternatives to suspensions, assisting in data collection, helping the school administration make informed discipline decisions, assisting in crisis intervention, and providing training and coaching to staff and students.
How does your organization implement RJ and ensure the letter of understanding is implemented?
Mostly through the day-to-day work of the RJ Coordinator assigned to the site. Also, closely monitoring and reviewing data with school site leadership as frequently as possible. We’re talking primarily about suspension data – how many, for what, what race, what gender. Making sure training of staff occurs and that the staff is coached after the training.
Is the success of a restorative justice program tied to the effectiveness of the RJOY School Coordinator?
Absolutely, especially in the first years. However, if we do our job properly – the job of helping to build on-site capacity to engage restorative strategies, then within a few years, ideally the school coordinator can move on to another school but the school site will carry on the work.
What setbacks have RJOY or School Coordinators experienced after instituting RJ at a school site?
The intellectual buy-in of school site administrators is tested when violence or drug incidents occur at a school and, out of habit, leadership might revert to punitive retributive justice models. Using RJ requires a transformation in thoughts about school discipline and a lot of mindfulness to make change. It’s not enough to attend training and return to your school; it’s about what you do with the things that you’ve learned and how you respond in the moment in often very challenging situations where the pressure is on to take strong action.
What other positive outcomes other than suspension and expulsion reductions occur as a result of RJ programs?
Suspension reductions are huge. Studies show that keeping kids in school is the strongest protective factor against violence and incarceration. Suspensions increase the chances that the youth will be pushed out. In Oakland, almost 70% of the youth pushed out will be incarcerated. 75% of the state’s inmates are high school drop-outs. When we invest in educating our youth, all of us win. We have safer communities, higher employment levels, and more vibrant local economies, a stronger tax base, and more resource-rich communities. If you decrease suspensions, you will also increase Average Daily Attendance funding to the school. Every time a kid attends school a school receives about $30/day in ADA.
What type of RJ training do you provide at the three school sites that RJOY serves?
During the first two to three years at a school site, with a population of 200-500 students, we provide one full-time RJ coordinator, who facilitates or co-facilitates training, implements circles, integrates RJ into the daily school functions, engages in intentional relationship-building with every member of the school community, and collects and evaluates data. There should also be a part-time RJ coach who builds implementation capacity with the school staff, but in most cases, this is also the work of the Coordinator. Ideally, eighty percent of the school staff and a significant number of students receive 16-20 hours of training in RJ.
We have three tiers of training. Tier 1 involves everyone in the school. We train teachers, school security officers and administrators in community building circles and proactive restorative strategies. There is a continuum of restorative strategies, such as in class, value circles, where students and teacher work with one another to come up with values that will guide the classroom. During this phase, we are constantly coaching the school in implementation.
Tier 2 involves training about facilitating conflict circles to repair harm. This is an alternative method to suspension and expulsion. It is not necessarily for teachers because it takes a lot of time to get buy-in from the person who was harmed, the person who did the harm, their parents, and any other people who were affected by the harm. When we first start implementing RJ at a school, the RJOY school coordinator facilitates conflict circles. Then, towards the end of our program at the school, the school site administrator, who is in charge of discipline, such as a vice principal or counselor, will conduct these restorative response circles.
Tier 3 involves training in circles for youth who have been suspended or incarcerated and are now coming back to the school setting. Usually these circles incorporate probation officers, parents, teachers, and administrators, as well as the student reentering the school setting and peers.
OUSD has established a regular schedule of district-wide trainings. RJOY and RJOY are currently focusing on creating manuals, formalized curricula, videos, and building a cadre of trainers, which will allow develop the training capacity to support expansion of RJ to a greater number of schools.
We are currently focusing on creating manuals, videos and building a cadre of trainers, which will allow us to provide training to more schools.
POPOUT: What does Restorative Justice actually look like in a school?
What does Restorative Justice actually look like in a school?
Ralph J. Bunche High School is a continuation high school located in West Oakland. A continuation school is an alternative high school diploma program that serves students who are 16 years old or older who are behind in required credits, and at risk of not graduating from school. 202 students attend Ralph J. Bunche High School, 63% of them are African American; 29% are Hispanic or Latino; 5% are Asian, Pacific Islander or Filipino; and less than 1% is American Indian. Suspensions were reduced from 37 during the 2010-2011 school year to 18 suspensions during the 2011-2012 school year when RJ was implemented at Ralph J. Bunche.
Eric Butler, RJOY School Coordinator at Ralph J. Bunche: RJ is about having intentional conversations and building intentional relationships because it is the best and easiest way to get students engaged in anything with which they aren’t familiar. In RJ, relationship building takes work but not as much work at it takes to mete out retributive punishment. A lot of teachers view RJ as a slap on the wrist. The hard part is convincing the grown-up administrators to give away some of their perceived power and let the process work.
School administrators and teachers just want students to come to school and do as they are told. But with RJ you work with the students to create values, to find out what their needs are, other than just getting an education. Before RJ, when something bad would happen, teachers or administration just wanted the kid out and punished. But with RJ, we ask meaningful questions, “What happened? What were you thinking at the time?, and How are you feeling about it now?” Then everyone in that restorative circle will work together to come to a solution about how the person who did the harm can repair the person harmed and the community.
You have to think about it like this, “What am I willing to give up? Can I give up ten minutes for a check in with my students at the beginning of class every day?” The answer is, “Yes.”
Lorna Shelton, Assistant Principal at Ralph J. Bunche: People always ask about discipline when they talk about schools. An entire paradigm shift is needed in education. If I wanted to focus on discipline, I would have been a correction officer. Students need to be able to self-correct. Usually, the students who get suspended continue to get suspended, so clearly that method isn’t working. We must try something else. If you want to teach students math but they are failing at it, you don’t kick them out of the classroom; you work with them and teach them. But we don’t use this approach for social and emotional competence. If a kid doesn’t exhibit that competence, we kick them out. If we look at social and emotional competence as equal to academic subjects like Math and English and treat it with the same importance, we are getting there. Restorative justice is about getting there.
What does RJ look like at the district level?
David Yusem, OUSD RJ Coordinator:
Our overarching goal is to create an environment where suspensions and expulsions are reduced and students graduate. Our targeted goal, under the Voluntary Resolution Plan, is to eliminate racially disproportionate discipline of our African-American students. In order to achieve these goals, we are working together to implement a variety of alternatives, including RJ. Since RJ is a philosophy, and not a program, it looks different at different schools. Currently, there are 10 more schools, 24 in total, in various stages of RJ implementation. Using Oakland Fund for Children and Youth funding from the City of Oakland, we have placed peer RJ coordinators at 8 middle schools. Some of those people also act as whole school RJ Coordinators. However, at some of our schools, RJ coordinators are often a counselor or support person that also is tasked with supporting the school in implementing RJ. .
Because retributive punishment is ingrained in the fabric of our society, RJ is a large culture shift. When people think of consequences, they usually think of punishment and it is hard for them to get past the perception that RJ is soft. In fact, it is much harder for a student to be accountable for something he or she has done and seek to repair the harm. It is harder to sit with the harmed student or school community member and acknowledge that you harmed that person. It also takes time to build community, but, of course, it is time well-spent. Regularly sitting in circle affords us the opportunity to get to the root of unwanted behavior. Certain behaviors are actually coping mechanisms for trauma. So a lot of behavior seen as “willful defiance” is actually an attempt to deal with external issues. Harmed people harm other people. If we address the root of the behavior, then we can stop the cycle of harm.
I am also currently collaborating with our other initiatives, African-American Male Achievement and social emotional learning units. RJ also works very well with the Social Emotional Learning(SEL) approach. In an RJ circle, students and adults are passively exercising and honing SEL skills – such as empathy, decision making, social awareness and self-regulation. As students master these skills, they can sit in a circle effectively and discuss curriculum-specific topics and SEL topics, such as “What does it mean to be a good friend?”
In OUSD, RJ is proving to be very effective with engaging students, reducing violent incidents, suspensions and expulsions, and creating a positive school climate overall. We have students asking for circles instead of fighting with each other. They understand that RJ is not a top down punitive model and their voices will be heard. However, we have a long way to go too. This work is leading to a district-wide culture shift, which is going to take many years, starts and stops, and successes and failures.