Restorative Justice in Oakland Schools: The Struggle to Eliminate Racial Bias and Strengthen Healthy Communities


By Arnoldo García, Restorative Justice Program Manager, OUSD

With looming budget cuts being proposed, will the Oakland school board keep its word to eliminate racial disproportionality in our schools? Oakland schools have been on the frontlines of using restorative justice and restorative practices to address and work to end the generations-long racial inequities that plague Oakland schools, and most schools across the country. Our students and staff have used restorative justice to improve conditions, but it has not been enough. This is a tough stance to take when our communities’ needs are unmet, suffering from gentrification, lack of living jobs and services, and investment in their neighborhoods.

Oakland students display what RJ is

Oakland students display what RJ is

In 2005, Oakland-based activists preoccupied with the police, school and community violence, and abuses impacting our neighborhoods, particularly affecting youth of color, started looking at and practicing restorative justice (RJ). RJ was considered because of the success communities in the U.S., New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, and other parts of the world experienced to reduce and prevent youth violence and misconduct in schools and neighborhoods. During the same period, RJ was also implemented at Cole elementary school with great success.

At the same time, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) was being sued for violating the civil rights of African American students, who were being suspended and expelled at disproportionate rates. The district decided to voluntarily implement RJ to address the racial inequities in punitive discipline. OUSD made RJ a strategic approach to build healthy relationships and a welcoming community that uplifted student voices and leadership. The changes have been promising, but the challenge to eliminate the racial disproportionality in school discipline continues to be daunting.

RJ is a dialogue process that helps involve everyone affected by wrongdoing in the community. RJ helps find ways to address the needs of the person harmed and those impacted, including the person who caused the harm. Through circle processes, the wrongdoer provides accountability and redress for the impacts. Through RJ, participants in restorative processes help create meaningful relationships to prevent harm from re-occurring and renew the community’s integrity. Before RJ, when student misconduct occurred, OUSD relied solely on punitive measures – detentions, suspensions, and expulsions – without talking about what happened or the causes.

RJ, along with other initiatives including PBIS, SEL, AMA, and others working for racial and gender equity, have help create change, and the results are positive. Suspensions have been noticeably reduced; however, the pattern of racial disproportionality has not. African American students still continue to be suspended in higher numbers, followed by Latinos and other students of color. And when Black and brown students are being suspended in disproportionate numbers this also has an impact on their academic achievement.

Building Community, Preventing Harm

RJ facilitators with district RJ program managers work in schools to build and strengthen the school community. This takes different forms through circles, where community members get to know each other, share their values, and work to develop shared understanding and values that help keep all students in school. The power of restorative processes and circles lies in the inclusion of everyone involved, and has an important role in the community. When this basic principle is followed, circle participants are able to share the power of their story and their experiences, creating closer bonds and more meaningful relationships.

When harm takes place in a restorative-building community, restorative processes and circles help school community members strengthen their knowledge and understanding of the root causes of student misconduct and what it takes to create and be in a healthy community.

School teachers and staff are learning that student conduct is an expression of the values and relationships in which adults hold them and model the way. Youth and student behavior many times mirror the habits and values of the adults in their families and community, the lack of social services and other supports that destabilize families and neighborhoods.

The individuals in the restorative circle come out with a deeper sense of their commitment to healing and to being in community. RJ provides ways for the person causing harm or engaged in misconduct to correct as well as address and heal the harm they caused to relationships. Punitive discipline only looked at what rules were broken and what punishment or consequences were to be imposed.

So, RJ in Oakland schools is at a turning point. How will RJ be wielded to prevent harm and continue building a community that values every member who struggles, as well as keep them in school and in the community?