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.
Nancy Nadel, an Oakland City Council member who is a strong advocate of RJ, Aeeshah Clottey of Attitudinal Healing, and I founded RJOY in 2005. That same year we gave a four-day Peacemaking Circle training to about 40 people in Oakland. One of the attendees was Rita Alfred, then a counselor at Cole Middle School (Cole). Deeply impressed with the promise of RJ, she began implementing restorative alternatives to suspensions at Cole, and this fairly quickly brought about positive outcomes. Nancy was impressed by this data. With her assistance, RJOY applied for and received a Measure Y grant – which provides funding in Oakland for violence prevention programs for high-risk youth and young adults – to pilot a program at Cole.
What are the goals of RJ in a school?
When 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?
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, in partnership with District RJ folk, have a conference with school site leadership where we discuss goals, objectives, strategies, and outcomes. We also get clear about everyone’s respective responsibilities: the RJ Coordinator’s, school leadership’s and teachers’. We try our best to reach a meeting of minds before the school year begins.
We then enter into a letter of understanding. This document sets out the responsibilities and roles of the school site administration and the RJOY school coordinator in some detail For example, school site leaderships is responsible for setting aside time to allow us to do staff training, for creating an RJ site leadership team, and ultimately, for creating an RJ discipline matrix with referral protocols. 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 drugs happen at a school and people 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.
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, there should be one full-time RJ coordinator, who provides training, implements circles, integrates RJ into the daily school functions, and collects and evaluates data. There should also be a part-time RJ coach who builds capacity with the school staff. Eighty percent of the school staff and a significant number of students should 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, and administrators, as well as the student reentering the school setting.
We are currently focusing on creating manuals, videos and building a cadre of trainers, which will allow us to provide training to more schools.
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: RJ looks different at different schools because it is adapted for specific sites. Right now, there are about 13 schools implementing some form of RJ and, with some overlap, there are 8 schools implementing peer-led RJ, meaning that the students themselves are running the restorative justice circles to build community and repair harm. Currently, it is a bit challenging because there is only enough money to hire one district-level Program Manager. RJ coordinators at schools are often also a counselor or person who deals with discipline. Some schools use School Improvement Grant (SIG) money to pay for RJ Coordinators. Additionally, RJ takes a large culture shift. Retributive punishment is ingrained in our society. When people think of consequences, they usually think of punishment and it is hard for people 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, and it saves time in the long run.
I am also currently working with the social emotional learning (SEL) unit that receives funding from the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) through its Collaborating Districts Initiative. RJ integrates very well with the SEL approach. In an RJ circle, students and adults are practicing SEL skills – impulse management, empathy, motivation and self-awareness. And as you master these skills, it makes it easier to sit in a circle effectively and discuss SEL topics like, “What does it mean to be a good friend?”
OUSD has experienced some great results. For instance, after the implementation of RJ, United for Success Academy lowered suspensions from 66 students during the 2010-2011 school year to 36 during the 2011-2012 school year, and eliminated disproportionate discipline for African American students. Our goal for the future is that OUSD is a place where every school operates with RJ principles. Students and staff use RJ to build community and deal with conflict and harm. Teachers support social emotional learning in their teaching. Students know what is expected and they are familiar with all types of circles – proactive community building, celebratory, conflict/repairing harm, and re-integrating students after incarceration, expulsion or suspension.