A decade ago, 60 percent of students at one South Los Angeles middle school were suspended at some point during the school year. Out of 1,958 sixth, seventh and eight graders, 1,189 were written up for drugs, violence or class disruptions. But this zero-tolerance discipline policy didn’t have the desired effects. Troubled kids isolated themselves, academics lagged and enrollment sharply declined.
Led by a new principal and funded by a federal grant, Audubon Middle School and Gifted Magnet Center, an inner-city junior high school with one of the largest proportions of African-American students in L.A., joined the growing movement of implementing restorative justice in schools: Instead of simply penalizing misbehavior, the strategy involves talking through the reasons why a child is acting out. Prioritizing resolution over retribution, it’s all about keeping kids in school while maintaining the best learning environment. Audubon has taken the idea to a whole new level. Last school year, out of 827 middle school students, only 13 were booted from class — an astonishing 98.9 percent drop from 10 years ago.
In this community, too many African American and Hispanic students fall victim to a life of crime and end up imprisoned, says Kevin Dailey, a behavior intervention specialist with 31 years of experience at Audubon. “People are behind the gray walls because they don’t know how to communicate or because they didn’t have those supportive relationships,” he explains. “We have to do whatever we can to keep them out of that. Knowing how to communicate, how to listen and how to speak from the heart are very important.” In his mind, communication is the difference between being facedown on the ground in handcuffs and enrolled in college.
Restorative justice teaches those skills primarily through something’s known as a “peace circle.” After an incident — whether it be mouthing off in class or shoving a student in the hall — the kids in the classroom talk about what happened over cups of hot chocolate. Rather than referring to “the victim” and “the perpetrator,” which establishes permanent roles for the kids, the circles focus on the action — “the harm” — and how it affects both students. As a small totem is passed around (determining who can speak), all of the participants try to arrive at some consensus for how to address the behavior moving forward.
Sure, there may be consequences, but that’s no longer the focus. Suspensions are now used very selectively because educators don’t want kids to fall behind in their studies. If there is a serious problem, administrators now find it’s better to hold conferences with parents and, if necessary, refer the student to anger management classes or other counseling.
“I don’t know if this is the definitive terminology in the textbooks, but what we see in action is restorative justice means giving kids an opportunity to speak their minds, to listen to them and agree on the next step,” explains Charmaine Young, the school’s principal since 2012. “We’re taking the punitive power of the referral slip and getting to the why of the behavior.”
It’s also why Young encourages teachers to get to know kids outside of the classroom — so they can understand them as young people with personalities and ambitions, rather than just as students who perform well or falter academically. She believes that teachers need to balance academic instruction with social development, like a seesaw. A class can’t be all fun and games, but it also can’t be entirely lessons, Young says. Students are more willing to learn if they feel the teachers actually care about them personally.
That’s where the new policies come into play: if there’s a problem in class, teachers will tailor the response to a student’s unique situation, rather than worrying about getting back to the lesson plan. It’s why administrators no longer issue suspensions for not wearing a uniform, for example, and instead ask if the student’s family has money for the right clothes.
Restorative justice isn’t a new concept, but its adoption is gaining traction, particularly in the Golden State. Last year, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing required all new principals and administrators to receive training on positive school discipline, and in September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the nation’s first law eliminating suspensions for young children (grades K-3) for minor incidents like talking back or showing up without school materials. Los Angeles Unified School District went one step further and said that no student in any grade should ever be suspended for “willful defiance,” a catch all offense (outside of two dozen specific categories like bullying and possessing drugs) that had been disproportionately targeted at minorities.
We must “change direction, keep all children in all schools and invest in restoring our children’s sense of purpose, despite so many institutions wanting to throw them away,” says Roslyn Broadnax, a core parent leader of CADRE, a group of minority parents with kids in South L.A. schools. “Over the past 10 years, we have begun to chip away at the belief that removing children of color from school for minor behavior, and leaving them vulnerable to harm and disconnected from the classroom, somehow improves our school safety and test scores.”
Recently, one boy in the after-school program at Audubon accidentally hit a fire alarm, disrupting a school site council meeting. A star basketball player, the youngster was worried he wasn’t going to be able to play in the upcoming league games. The very next morning, he arrived at the main office at 6:45 a.m. — more than an hour before the first bell rings at 8 a.m. — and sat in a chair waiting for the principal to arrive. “I just wanna know, Ms. Young, if I can have a cup of hot chocolate and explain what happened?” he asked. “Before you hear it from anyone else,” he added.
“Who does that?” Young wonders aloud. These are the kind of young adults Audubon is nurturing: kids who can own up to their mistakes or ask for help when it’s needed. Either way, the graduates will be students who know how to speak up for themselves.
Young points out a recent example of their success: Last year, the valedictorians at several L.A. high schools were all alums of Audubon.