Oakland leads way as restorative justice techniques enter education mainstream

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Jacob Mathis was a classic underachiever and troubled child. 

The 15-year-old’s grade point average was just 0.77 and by his own accord, he had “extreme anger problems” stemming from his relationship with his stepdad. His emotional turmoil often spilled over into school and affected his conduct in the classroom. After an incident in which he was charged with assault with a deadly weapon and making criminal threats, he was sentenced to probation.

Mathis’ life changed for the better after his probation officer recommended he enroll in a summer program at East Oakland teen and young adult center Youth Uprising — it utilized restorative justice, a community-focused, therapeutic process that addresses youth violence by helping perpetrators understand the roots of their anger and grasp how they have done others harm.

Restorative justice attempts to break the cycle of violence by addressing the underlying cause — often, a traumatic experience, such as physical or verbal abuse or witnessing a violent crime — and acknowledging the emotional impact of such trauma on young people. Through active communication, young people in restorative justice programs have been able to overcome their violent impulses.

By participating in Youth Uprising’s programs, Mathis said, “I learned how to sit down and talk to people about my issues. Now, it’s all good.”

Mathis said he’s even applied the restorative justice principles he’s learned to his own family dynamics. It’s allowed him to break a cycle of acting out and blaming others that could have easily led to jail. His grade point average is now up to 3.27 and not only has he not re-offended, but he now envisions going to college and studying marine biology at the University of Florida.

“I thought that because I’m from Oakland, nothing good is going to come from out of my life," said Mathis, before being exposed to restorative justice. "And now, I’m motivated to work harder in school.”

Over the last five years, success stories like Mathis’ have become more common. Originally, the province of gang counselors and prison re-entry specialists, restorative justice principles have increasingly been adopted by schools, teen centers, and after-school programs. In Oakland — a city of 400,000 which averages triple-digit homicides annually, and whose dropout rate is 40 percent overall and as much as 60 percent in some schools — restorative programs have been embraced by youth-oriented nonprofits and the Oakland Unified School District alike as a solution for both cyclic violence and chronic truancy, which experts say are gateways to dropout, incarceration, and recidivism.

Statistically-speaking, high school dropouts are much more likely to become incarcerated than those who graduate. According to a 2006 study by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a national policy and advocacy organization, 75 percent of America’s state prison inmates, 59 percent of federal inmates and 69 percent of jail inmates in America do not have high school diplomas. In California, youth recidivism — the rate at which youths return to prison — runs as high as 90 percent. Youth completing restorative justice programs, however, have a significantly lower recidivism rate, in the range of only 10 to 20 percent.

Ted Wachtel is the founder of the Pennsylvania-based International Institute for Restorative Practices, the world’s first accredited restorative justice graduate school program. He says the success Oakland schools and nonprofit organizations are having in using restorative justice principles and techniques to reduce youth violence is “very significant and very parallel to the kind of results we’re familiar with.”

Wachtel and other national leaders in the restorative justice movement hope that restorative practices can reform public education, decreasing violent crime while increasing school enrollment. In Oakland, the tangible connection between violence and school dropout is underlined by OUSD and OPD data, which shows that spikes in the city’s homicides are often mirrored by a rise in truancy and dropout rates.

Between 2005-08, for instance, Oakland homicides increased sharply, while school enrollment consistently declined. In 2006, the city’s homicides skyrocketed to 148, the highest total in 11 years and a 50 percent increase from the previous year.

Almost 20 percent of those deaths were young people — and many of the people who killed them were also minors. During the 2006 homicide epidemic, enrollment at East Oakland’s Castlemont High School dropped by more than 7 percent. The following year, the number of murders in the neighborhood around the school doubled, and the school district’s total enrollment dipped to its lowest level in 15 years. These statistics bolster the theory that cyclic violence, youth crime and chronic truancy are closely linked.

Traditional school discipline and zero-tolerance policies can make the problems of violence and dropping out worse, say restorative justice advocates. 

“Suspension puts the student who needs the most supervision out on the street,” said Castle Redmond, formerly an restorative justice instructor at Cole Middle School in Oakland and currently a program manager with the California Endowment — a foundation which has invested heavily in restorative programs in 14 California cities, as part of its 10-year, $1 billion initiative, “Building Healthy Communities.”

For many Oakland students, “the reality of violence makes it impossible to continue education,” said Olis Simmons, Youth Uprising’s president and CEO. 

“If you don’t feel safe in your school and to and from your home, you can’t learn,” she explained. Yet, as Simmons points out, “not going to school isn’t any safer.”

Restorative practices “can be implemented to reduce crime, incarceration and recidivism,” said Barbara McClung, of OUSD’s Complementary Learning Department, a local leader in the field.

When violence happens at OUSD, McClung and her team initiate restorative justice circles – a practice derived from Native American tribal customs, in which participants hold hands, face each other in a circle and take turns listening to each other and being heard.

“Using restorative justice circles following a killing can help to squash retaliatory violence,” she says matter-of-factly, adding, “we use restorative practices to mitigate trauma following a school-related crisis or loss of a student to homicide.” 

Statistics illustrate just how effective the practice has been.

In 2008, a pioneering pilot program at Cole Middle School resulted in an 87 percent drop in the suspension rate, while expulsions dropped to zero. After expanding the program to three middle schools between 2008-10, statistically-significant decreases in suspensions and truancy were achieved, says Dr. Patricia Marrone Bennett, CEO ofResource Development Associates, a consulting company that is monitoring the results of a restorative justice approach in Oakland schools.

The positive track record in some of the after-school and alternative education programs which employ restorative practices in Oakland tells a similar story:

  • In 2009, 96 percent of the juvenile offenders participating in McCullum Youth Court’s peer counseling programs did not re-offend.
  • In 2010, school enrollment rate among Youth Uprising members averaged about 10 percent higher than OUSD’s overall, and as much as 40 percent higher than the district’s worst schools.
  • Ninety percent of the youth in the state-run California Youth Outreach’s job training programs who have been involved in gang culture and/or activity are enrolled in school.
  • About one-third of at-risk youth placed in local nonprofit Youth Radio’s media training programs go on to work in media.

Youth Movement Records, a sound engineering and music recording program based in Oakland that accepts at-risk youth into its program, has maintained a graduation rate of more than 90 percent in seven years of operation — 50 percent higher than OUSD’s over that same period.

Besides making a dent in both truancy and recidivism, restorative justice also saves money, supporters argue. 

“It costs far less to use restorative diversion than to incarcerate a youth,” said Fania Davis of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, a nonprofit organization which has developed restorative programs currently implemented at OUSD. Davis cites a 2007 study, which found that every dollar spent on restorative justice saves eight dollars spent on incarceration.

The restorative approach is used in a long list of institutions: public school programs, alternative education programs, re-entry and diversion programs, health and wellness programs and job training and placement programs. Because so many variables are involved, “there’s no cookie-cutter model” for how restorative justice is practiced, said Sandra Davis, a program manager at California Endowment. 

Yet without a standardized metric for measuring its success, it’s hard to make an airtight case for restorative justice.

Establishing a direct statistical connection between suspension, truancy, expulsion and student dropout rates is challenging, said Redmond, who notes that OUSD currently lacks the technical capacity to collect that information. OUSD’s restorative justice programs are effective now, McClung maintains, but would be even more so if training was more accessible, there were more coordinators and funding was increased. But in order to warrant further investiture, “We definitely have to show outcomes, at the end of the day, that our board can understand,” said California Endowment’s Davis.

Despite the increasing adoption of restorative justice programs, both in and outside Oakland’s public schools, dropout rates have remained high, leading critics to question the effectiveness of this approach. Advocates point out, however, that many programs employing restorative practices were originally designed as violence prevention efforts; adapting these programs to try to boost graduation rates is a more recent occurrence, as is the integration of methodology between public education institutions and external organizations. For that reason, advocates say, expecting instantaneous results is unrealistic.

“School dropout is the foundation of a complicated set of issues,” Simmons explained. There’s no quick fix, she adds, for the dropout rate, violence or unemployment, problems which stem, she and other advocates maintain, from decades of neglect.

In order for restorative justice to work, Sandra Davis said not only does the school district have to be fully on board, but local politicians must also buy in to the idea.

Yet public safety is a matter of contentious debate in urban cities with high crime rates like Oakland. City officials, who face constant political pressure for immediate answers to Oakland’s crime problem and its substandard public education, have been unwilling to invest heavily in restorative programs without first seeing more demonstrable results from programs already in place.

Oakland currently spends about $8 million annually on youth-oriented programs, many of which employ some form of restorative practices, even if they don’t technically consider themselves restorative justice organizations. Approximately $6 million per year comes from Measure Y, a controversial taxpayer-approved violence prevention initiative begun in 2004.

Critics argue that Measure Y-funded youth programs — which constitute only about 35 percent of the initiative’s budget, with around 65 percent going to police and fire services — are a waste of money which would be better spent increasing OPD staffing. Yet even police officials concede that community-based solutions are needed.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how successful Measure Y-funded programs are at reducing violent crime, since no statistical category currently exists which is capable of calculating such a figure. As Priya Jagannathan, Measure Y’s Violence Prevention Planner, asks, “How do you measure violence which didn’t happen?”

Likewise, it’s also difficult to determine precisely how efficient Measure Y programs are at increasing graduation rates – since most of those programs weren’t specifically designed to address that issue.

However, new efforts are underway within the youth violence prevention and public education fields to improve measurement techniques and to share and evaluate collected data — a forward step toward what restorative justice advocates hope to someday see: a functional public education system horizontally and vertically integrated with comprehensive community-based youth services programs.

In 2011, after experiencing limited success with restorative justice in middle schools, OUSD expanded its efforts to a pilot program at Castlemont; researchers at the University of California are helping to measure its effectiveness. This past fall, the district received funding specifically earmarked for a comprehensive evaluation of its restorative justice programs — a first for OUSD. Meanwhile, Youth Uprising recently instituted a new data-management system — Efforts to Outcomes — which enables performance tracking and will allow the organization to measure graduation rates of its 3,000 members, which it’s never done before.

Equally encouraging is the fact that many of the institutional stakeholders in Oakland’s public education puzzle — a list which includes the school district, the city, the police, the probation department, county-run health and social services departments, afterschool and alternative education programs - have started working together as part of the effort to promote restorative practices. This is significant, Simmons explains, because all these institutions have different internal cultures and have been reluctant to pool resources in the past.

For instance, Youth Uprising has been located directly adjacent to Castlemont High School for the past six years. Yet the two institutions have only begun to share data in the past six months, Simmons said.

Another sign of increased commitment to restorative programs also has come from Oakland’s police department, who recently announced a $10.7 million Justice Department grant to hire 25 officers to monitor youth violence, human trafficking and juvenile delinquency near four Oakland middle schools.

The potential of restorative justice to provide at least a partial fix for our broken education system seems huge. Yet realizing that potential is a task beyond Herculean. It’s one thing to create a successful program at a small school and quite another to upscale that model to encompass an entire K-12 district.

For that reason, restorative justice supporters maintain, it takes time to affect significant culture shift on a community and institutional level. Redmond said he doesn’t expect to see any measurable impact of the Castlemont initiative on graduation rates prior to 2015, when the 2011 freshman class will be seniors. 

“You can’t expect results tomorrow,” he cautioned.

Susan Ferriss, Susan Mernit and Michelle Fitzhugh-Craig contributed to this story.