.Changing Culture in the OUSD: Restorative justice can reduce harm before it happens

One of the most proven alternative approaches to addressing crime is to create a supportive culture in educational settings. This approach—restorative justice—is already in place in Oakland. Readers may be familiar with the term, but what really is restorative justice? And does it work?

The Oakland Unified School District first introduced a restorative justice program in 2007 at Cole Middle School, a pilot program that immediately reduced suspensions by 87%, as previously reported by the East Bay Express. David Yusem is the restorative justice district doordinator at the OUSD. He says that restorative justice is still too often misunderstood.

The restorative justice leaders in Oakland schools spend most of their efforts finding rich connections between students in order to prevent and mitigate harm before a conflict arises.  “We root our conversations in something important [to the students],” Yusem said. Building facilitated conversations around touchstones from the varied cultures of students at a school site can serve as a foundation for caring about one another. It is a big difference from the standard way of thinking about crime which asks, “What law was broken? Who did it? And what are we going to do to them?”

Dr. Lara Bazelon is the director of the Criminal Juvenile Justice Clinic at the University of San Francisco Law School. Bazelon agrees that restorative justice’s way of preventing harm bears a stark contrast to the traditional criminal justice model, even when dealing with a harm after it has occured.  “[The usual approach is] asking what crime was committed, who did it and how should we punish them? How severely should we punish them?” she said. “Restorative Justice is reframing [the questions] to ask who was harmed, what are their needs?”

“Restorative justice is a way of just reframing the idea of harm and accountability,” Bazelon said. The new question is, “How can we both, as a person who committed the harm and the community, meet the needs?”

Some detractors argue that this reframing actually gives resources to the perpetrators of crime rather than supporting victims.

Author of the book Rectify: The Power of Restorative Justice After Wrongful Conviction, Bazelon argues that the real point is to give the victims what they most often want—that no one else becomes a victim of the same harm they have suffered. “It’s really survivor focused rather than perpetrator focused [because restorative justice] is attempting to get at the root causes of what caused the person to commit the harm so that it won’t happen again,” she said.

In the criminal justice system in California, where restorative justice can be an option in some jurisdictions, most often punishment and trial are still on the table. But where restorative justice hopes to operate without criminal proceedings such as in the OUSD, it is still not a case of perpetrators getting off scot-free.

“[T]here’s resistance because people think that restorative justice equals being soft on crime, you hold hands and you sit in a circle and the person who did a terrible thing literally gets away with murder,” Bazelon said. “Fighting that perception is very challenging.”

A goal of nearly every victim, according to Bazelon, is that no one else goes through what they have gone through. They want the criminal to STOP. Yet recidivism rates from within the criminal justice system are very high. “So if your goal is, I don’t want anyone else to go through this, [then] you are invested in making sure that the person who hurt you doesn’t hurt anybody else,” she said.

To see what restorative justice looks like on the ground, imagine that when a youth commits a harm or is in some conflict, rather than pushing them out of the community through suspension, they are invited to “deal with [the events] in the community. Everybody [comes] together and we talk about what happened,” Yasum said. ”Ultimately [the group develops] a plan to make it right.”

Restorative justice is also employed at the school for individual support as a way of preventing future harms. One example might be “a circle for a student [rejoining school after] being incarcerated, welcoming them to the school and identifying what they need to be successful.”

It is true that restorative justice will not work in every case. Practitioners are very aware of the need to keep the experience safe for survivors and community alike.

“If someone isn’t going to be accountable for their actions, then you aren’t going to bring them together with the person that they hurt,” Yusem said. Perpetrators of harm need first to “admit what they’ve done and be ready to make it right.”

This can be difficult for individuals and communities who may not be used to making such admissions. Community members—especially among the African-American students suspended at higher rates who come from communities whose members are incarcerated more than the average—can have a difficult time speaking up. OUSD is working to shift this culture in the schools. The site-specific teams, led in part by students, are on the spot to identify and resolve conflicts, and to set the stage for rich community connections that can remove the conditions for harm that exist in disconnected communities.


Student Leaders in the restorative justice program at Edna Brewer Middle School speak

Chavez LiCondon (she/her), 7th grade

I would recommend RJ to others because it is a good way to help everyone involved in the conflict to feel safe and that something like that will not happen again.

Sadie Brunato (she/her), 8th grade

RJ gives you a different perspective on how to fix things with someone and fix things with yourself if you do something wrong.

Tova Bruland-Vanderweff (she/her), 7th grade 

RJ is a start to being able to make change, as well as learning alternative ways to solve conflicts. It can help you in your life now to solve conflicts, but can also help you in the future.

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