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. {{{subscriber|2.00}}} [trackrt]

Year One: Bringing Teachers On Board

I began the restorative justice educational process by offering support meetings for teachers to vent and reflect on their experiences with the students in the classroom. Many of them were in their first year, and classroom management was especially challenging. I built close relationships with several teachers and offered assistance to them in their classrooms whenever I could.

Restorative circle with students and facilitators

A circle meets at Cole Middle School in Oakland, California. The restorative justice pilot program at Cole, which Rita Alfred coordinated, was so effective in reducing suspensions, expulsions, and violence that staff at about twenty schools sought training and assistance to bring restorative practices to their sites. In large part due to these efforts, in January 2010, Oakland’s school board passed a resolution adopting restorative justice district-wide as official policy. Credit: Julie Mallozzi

In August of 2006, after several planning meetings with the principal, we launched a year of training for the teachers. We unearthed conflicts among staff and used the restorative justice process to work through them. At the same time I was facilitating restorative circles with students and discipline conferences with students, families, administrators, and teachers when needed. We started out with a two-day training in August, negotiated a monthly staff training using the process, a follow-up two-day training in November, and another follow-up two-day training in the spring.

The staff built a closeness and willingness to work through differences. By the end of that year, the majority of the adults at Cole were ready to bring this new practice to the students and their families. We experienced some good results in the first year: a reduction in fights, suspensions, and referrals for expulsion. We also saw close to 100 percent retention of teachers—this was unprecedented as turnover was usually around 50 percent—with just one teacher leaving for higher studies. And we all experienced a more positive school culture.

Year Two Onward: Students Take It On

In 2007 we continued with an initial two-day training for staff in August, monthly restorative justice staff meetings/trainings, and a one-day training in the spring. A teacher and I taught a restorative justice elective class for eighth-grade students. Students from this class presented a restorative justice workshop at the annual middle school conference. Teachers and administrators referred cases to the restorative justice process. Many of these cases were resolved successfully. Fights were down again, and fewer students were referred for expulsion. In 2008, our principal left the area and a new principal came on board. The teachers and I were on the hiring committee and were able to garner a commitment from the new principal for this healing work to continue at Cole. He was enthusiastic about the process.

Students identified the restorative justice process as “fair,” and with some encouragement, many admitted when they did something wrong. Suspensions fell by 87 percent. Students continued to embrace these practices in high school: their principal noticed that Cole students actually accepted responsibility when they committed harm and expected adults to include them in the restoration process.

Perhaps the most rewarding part of this work arose when the Cole students moved on to high school. In 2005, the larger comprehensive school, McClymonds High, was broken into two small schools. Thus Cole students had the option to choose between BEST, which offered an entrepreneurial track, and EXCEL, which offered a law and international trade track. The EXCEL Law Academy director solicited Cole students. Her plan was to incorporate restorative justice into a youth court program that had previously handled teacher and administrator referrals using the traditional adversarial process. Within three to four weeks, Cole students were actively facilitating restorative justice circles based on referrals submitted by teachers and administrators.

These students not only handled conflicts that arose between other students, they were also able to manage conflicts among themselves. One afternoon, a former Cole student was engaged in a verbal battle with another student that threatened to become physical. This incident took place in front of the principal’s office when the Law Academy director happened upon the scene. She put her hand on the shoulder of the Cole student, and reminded her that she knew what to do. Almost immediately, the student stopped and, with her peer, responded to the familiar series of questions posed by the adult. This restorative conversation kept both students from receiving a suspension once the principal became aware of their willingness to solve the problem constructively.

Lessons Learned for Restorative Justice in Schools

Restorative justice is a philosophy and set of practices that move us from being punitive toward someone who has done something wrong to being receptive and constructive while holding the person accountable. It first began in the juvenile justice system, but in the last fifteen years, schools have begun to adopt its principles and practices. Schools have found that for these to effectively help students to change their behavior, practitioners need to build a wider culture that can support the changes in behavior that students are trying to learn. We also found that students need to be supported after experiencing the practice. Hence restorative justice encompasses the intervention and also the community-building and culture change necessary to provide the caring conditions in which change can be made and re-integration can occur.

Student painting

“School House Jail House” reads the text on this painting by another student at the Representing the Pipeline event. Credit: Suspension Stories (

In many schools, some structures already exist to support a culture of caring. Many schools implement Second Step, Too Good for Violence, Too Good for Drugs, and Tribes—programs that assist in building a foundation of caring and help students and adults work collaboratively to solve problems and resolve conflicts. Conflict mediation, victim-offender dialogue programs, and youth courts are also in place to correct wrongdoing, in addition to structures such as school support teams, school attendance review teams and review boards, parent/teacher conferences, and case management, which bring people involved in a student’s life together to help the student. These structures may or may not be restorative.

Being restorative is many things—it is holding onto and practicing values that promote ideals such as inclusiveness, respect, responsibility, honesty, compassion, love, openmindedness, kindness, and consensus-based decision-making. It is a way of being in relationship with all people and, in some cultures, being in relationship with all things, including nature and other animals. Thus restorative practices embody many of the ideals of religious and moral thought.

Justice, on the other hand, attends to the harm caused. Justice occurs when people who have been harmed can ask for what they need and get what they need to move on. Justice occurs when those who were harmed are allowed to communicate the impact of the harm to the person who harmed them and finally feel that they have healed. Justice occurs when people who have caused harm realize what they have done, feel remorse, discover the underlying causes that led them to commit the harmful acts, heal, and are motivated to take actions that begin to right the wrong and finally to promise that they will not cause such harm again.

Justice occurs when the community gets involved whenever harm happens to anyone within the community and assists both the person harmed and the person who caused the harm. It is the community’s responsibility to adopt applicable lessons from each situation into daily interactions among community members.

Implementing restorative justice in schools will require recreating our culture and how we interact with each other. Restorative justice and many of the structures and programs mentioned offer some ways to rethink and build on the caring culture that already exists. This will require taking a hard look at the way we are in our schools—how we behave, how we think about harm, how we hold and share power, and how we shift existing practices that undermine the culture of caring and accountability that we are advocating. This takes time and involves a process of inquiry that we are just now embarking on at the district level.

(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.) Also, don’t miss the seven freely accessible online exclusives associated with this special issue on restorative justice — to read them, click here.


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