Civil rights attorney Fania E. Davis, co-founder of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), shares a laugh during the May 20 Frontier Luncheon with fellow presenter Cameron Simmons, whose life was turned around by the restorative justice practices of Bunche High School. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

Oakland school district youths are transformed by restorative justice practices

The two “Frontier Luncheon” speakers at Session II of the 2015 Summer Peacebuilding Institute (SPI) did not offer a speech to their audience of 170 people from 29 countries. Instead Fania E. Davis and Cameron Simmons showed a short documentary film, encouraged dining table conversation about it, and invited questions.

The film featured a young African American man fresh from juvenile detention, entering a last-chance high school in Oakland, California, one of the most violent cities in the United States. His re-entry began with more than a dozen adults (including his mother and stepfather) and a student-peer sitting in a circle and talking, one by one, of how much they cared about him and how they would help him in any way they could. As the participants opened up and expressed their emotions and vulnerabilities, the young man did too. Love and hope filled the space.

This inspiring story had its roots in a 2005 decision by civil rights attorney Fania E. Davis to co-found Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), which she has led ever since. The SPI audience learned at the May 20 luncheon that Cameron Simmons was much like the young man in the film.

Simmons spoke of being a 4-year-old when he received his first school suspension (for taking back his own candy confiscated by the principal). By age 16, he had been suspended 150 times and had simply given up on school. He was living on the streets, running with a gang, heading to being one of the tens of thousands of African American youth in the “school to prison pipeline.”

Instead Simmons found himself at Bunche High School – the school featured in the film – where he spent part of his first day sitting in a “community-building circle” with other African American males, witnessing tears and laughter among guys freely sharing their feelings and thoughts. This circle was one of many types used by the RJOY school coordinator at Bunche, Eric Butler. In another type of circle, Butler may assemble family members, the school principal, guidance counselor, teachers, and any others likely to be regularly interacting with the student. For a conflict among the student population, students would be heavily represented in a circle.

When Simmons graduated from Bunche one year later, he was an honors student and a school leader, on the cusp of being a leader in his community. His turn-around began when the adults in the school circle “greeted me with genuine love and care ­– they made me feel differently.”

“I can be the best I can be because they are trying to be the best they can be for me,” said Simmons, adding that their honesty and vulnerability were contagious: “People gravitate toward the truth.”

Fania Davis spoke of shifting from being “an activist filled with rage” to being someone who loves having the tools of restorative justice to “light candles” in the darkness of an unjust, racist society. (Photo by Michael Sheeler)

In founding RJOY, Davis spoke of shifting from being “an activist filled with rage” to being someone who loves having the tools of restorative justice to “light candles” in the darkness of an unjust, racist society. In a February 2014 article in Yes! magazine, Davis explained:

The school-to-prison pipeline refers to the alarming national trend of punishing and criminalizing our youth instead of educating and nurturing them. Exclusionary discipline policies such as suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests are increasingly being used to address even the most minor infractions: a 5-year-old girl’s temper tantrum, a child doodling on her desk with erasable ink, or adolescent students having a milk fight in the cafeteria. Use of suspensions has almost doubled since the 1970’s… [B]lack students are three times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts for comparable offenses.

The heartening news, said Davis at the Frontier Luncheon, is that recently published research shows amazing results for schools that take a restorative justice, rather than a punitive, approach to non-compliant or under-performing students. Researchers found the following in the Oakland United School District:

  • Schools that used restorative justice saw a 40% decrease in suspensions in only one year for African American students.
  • Absenteeism in middle schools dropped by 24% in those with restorative justice programs, compared to an increase of 62% in schools without such programs.
  • Almost 76% of students who participated in “harm-repair” circles found that they worked to remedy the situation.
  • Four-year graduation rates in high schools using restorative justice increased by 60%, compared to 7% for schools without such programs.
  • More than 88% of teachers said that restorative practices were very or somewhat helpful in managing difficult student behaviors in the classroom.

The 85-page report, prepared for the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education, noted that more than 6,000 students participated in conflict/harm circles in a single year. From one school in 2005, the number of Oakland schools embracing restorative justice grew to 24 in 2013-14.

“The restorative justice model has been so successful in the schools where RJOY has worked that, in 2010, the Oakland school board passed a resolution adopting RJ as a system-wide alternative to zero-tolerance discipline and as a way of creating stronger and healthier school communities,” wrote Davis in her Yes! article.

“Girls who have been long-time enemies become friends after sitting in a peacemaking circle. Instead of fighting, students come into the restorative justice room and ask for a talking piece and circle,” Davis said. “Youth and adults who walk into a circle feeling anger toward one another end up embracing. Youth report they are doing circles at home with their families. High school graduates are returning to their schools to ask for circles to address conflict outside the school.”

For Davis and Simmons, their lunch presentation represented a pause from a five-day conference at Eastern Mennonite University where they joined 36 other experts in restorative justice to consider the future of the field. Davis practiced law for 27 years before becoming a full-time advocate of restorative justice. She holds a PhD in indigenous studies from the California Institute of Integral Studies.

Discussion on “Oakland school district youths are transformed by restorative justice practices

  1. Offering the hopeless, hope. Offering the powerless, power. Offering to those conscious or unconscious of their wounds and wounding, an incredible opportunity to start the healing process from exactly where they are, at a human pace with a human face.

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