Newswise — A pilot program to change how teachers and administrators respond to student misbehavior at an Oakland middle school led to a dramatic drop in suspensions and expulsions, according to a new study released today. During a one-year implementation of the alternative “restorative justice” program, suspensions dropped by 87 percent and expulsions dropped to zero.

The study, School-Based Restorative Justice as an Alternative to Zero-Tolerance Policies, was conducted by UC Berkeley School of Law’s Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice.

Researchers spent one year observing the program at the Cole Middle School in West Oakland, California, interviewing teachers, students, and parents. It’s one of the first studies to closely examine the impact of restorative justice on an American inner-city school.

Restorative justice programs have emerged nationwide as an alternative to punitive treatment for student misbehavior. These dialogue-based programs encourage young people to take responsibility for their actions, repair harm done to victims, and improve and strengthen relationships. Zero-tolerance policies, on the other hand, typically lead to suspensions and expulsions—which heighten the risk of going to juvenile hall or jail.

Mary Louise Frampton, faculty director of the Henderson Center, said restorative justice is far superior to zero-tolerance policies in schools.

“Zero-tolerance policies fail our young people,” said Frampton. “Students are expelled or suspended for typical adolescent behavior: smoking, fighting, cursing, and acting out. Removing youngsters from school increases the risk that they will fall behind, lose faith in themselves, drop out and get into trouble. Restorative justice breaks that school-to-prison pipeline and keeps students in class—where they belong.”

A core element of most restorative justice programs involves a “circle”: students and teachers literally sit in a circle as one participant guides the conversation. Circles are typically held to discuss disciplinary problems, such as disrespectful behavior, acting out in class, bullying, and more. During the practice, students are taught to show respect, empathy, and compromise. At Cole, both students and adults asked for extra circles to help them navigate troubling issues—and to prevent conflicts from escalating.

In the report’s student survey, 83% of respondents said the program was “helping kids at Cole”; 83% said it was “reducing fighting at Cole”; while 91% said it was “helping relationships with other students.” As one student told an interviewer, “Normally when I get into a conflict, my instinct is to fight. But restorative justice kinda taught me to calm down a bit, taught me to talk it out.”

Teachers said the program helped students mature and gain social skills; and it compelled them to confront the consequences of their actions. “At first, I felt that I did not have time to do restorative justice,” said one teacher, “but now I feel like I don’t have time not to do it.”

A local nonprofit, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth (RJOY), helped develop the pilot program. Fania Davis, RJOY’s executive director, said the Berkeley Law report offers the first empirical evidence of the program’s positive impact on students, teachers, and administrators.

“The program was implemented in a school with a diverse student body located in a low-income neighborhood with a fairly high crime rate,” said Davis. “The Berkeley Law study clearly shows that a school-based restorative justice program can make a huge difference for students in low-income communities of color,” she said.

Michael Sumner, report co-author and research manager at the Berkeley Law Henderson Center for Social Justice, said the findings illustrate the dramatic impact of dialogue over retribution. “The research findings illustrate the accomplishments of this innovative approach to discipline,” he said. “Restorative justice not only offers a new way for schools to deal with discipline, but it also creates a more productive learning environment.”

Cole Middle School eventually closed after implementation of the pilot program due to years of declining enrollment. But, inspired by Cole’s success, the Oakland Unified School District’s Board of Directors passed a resolution in 2009 adopting restorative justice as a system-wide alternative to zero tolerance discipline.

Barbara McClung, an administrator with the Oakland Unified School District said, "These findings will help shape our future Restorative Justice programs, particularly in the area of parent engagement and community partnerships, as we work toward closing the school-to-prison pipeline."

For more details about how to implement a school-based restorative justice program, read the report.

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