Shifting School Culture

Suspension Stories

Harsh school discipline drives many students into juvenile and adult prisons. Students illustrated the school-to-prison pipeline at a Representing the Pipeline event in Chicago in July 2010. Credit: Suspension Stories (

“That’s not fair!” This phrase was uttered daily by many of the students in Oakland’s public school system. Even when they were caught in an act that violated school rules, students did not readily take responsibility for their actions. They were simply playing their role in our punitive system, in which most students tend to blame others rather than accept the consequences for their behavior. Our search for ways to change this paradigm led us to explore the practice of restorative justice.

Training to Change the System

During the fall of 2005, I (Rita) was employed by the Oakland Unified School District as a case manager working with students and their families who were referred for expulsion. As case managers with backgrounds in counseling and mental health, we were charged with finding alternatives to suspensions and expulsions. In December 2005, I was mandated to attend a four-day training on restorative justice, organized by a local community agency, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. The training was facilitated by Roca, a youth development agency from Chelsea, Massachusetts.

After completing the training, I was assigned to Cole Middle School and worked closely with the principal and assistant principal as a case manager for the school’s Pupil Disciplinary Hearing Panel. The administrators and I had several conversations about student suspensions and expulsions and lamented that the children returned to school showing no behavior changes. It was a vicious cycle, an unending revolving door. This situation exacerbated the already chaotic school culture of fights and defiance.

My job was to create a paradigm shift within the school context by introducing restorative justice as an alternative to the traditional discipline system. After my training with Roca, I returned renewed and ready to try this new way of working with student violations. The principal, having had several years of experience as an assistant principal, agreed that suspensions and expulsions did not work to change student behavior. Together, we began the restorative justice journey at Cole. ...

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Rita Alfred and Ina Bendich are co-founders of Restorative Justice Training Institute in the San Francisco Bay Area. They provide trainings and consult with schools interested in implementing restorative justice practices to build positive school climates. They are also dedicated to eliminating the school to prison pipeline through preventing and/or mitigating the harmful effects of punishment and zero tolerance in schools.

Source Citation

Alfred, Rita and Ina Bendich. 2012. Shifting School Culture. Tikkun 27(1): 48.

tags: Education, Justice & Prisons, Politics & Society   
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