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Practicing restorative justice at Oakland's Skyline High
Sonia Black is walking through the halls of Skyline High School, trying to get the last few kids to class.
Black is in charge of discipline and attendance for ninth and twelfth graders at Skyline. She’s been at the school for two years and this year, they’re trying something new: restorative justice.
“The whole idea of restorative justice is, how can we make this situation right so you don’t have to come up and see me anymore?” says Black. “We want to have a conversation about what’s going on and what we can do to resolve this so that the student is in the classroom learning and the teacher is able to teach.”
It’s a huge shift from the traditional way discipline has worked at Skyline: you cut class, you go to detention; you get into a fight, you get suspended.
But now cutting class might not lead to detention. Now they’re trying to understand why you’d cut class in the first place. And, they want you to help decide what the consequences should be.
After lunch ends, a security guard is after some of the stragglers. If they don’t get moving, they’re going to be late for fifth period class. There are a total of six security guards at Skyline. Sam Tran is one of them.
“I would say I have a good relationship with about 98 percent of the kids up on the campus,” says Tran. He says he’s here to “make sure everybody’s safe, everybodys happy, kids are doing what they’re supposed to do I’ll educate them and hopefully they’ll walk the right path and do the right thing.”
Sonia Black hopes to incorporate the guards into this new restorative justice approach.
“Because they have a lot of power on this campus and a lot of the kids look at them in a positive way,” Black explains. “So instead of them having to bring two kids up here who got into a verbal fight, maybe they could have a conversation right there with these two kids.”
But change comes gradually and many students aren’t aware of the new philosophy. A lot of them say discipline seems arbitrary: security is hard on students who are tardy, but then they let some pretty egregious things go.
“Like the other day I have this friend who was selling and smoking weed in front of the security guard and he didn’t do nothing,” says one student, Carolina, who didn’t want to give her last name. “He was just, some to like avoid the fatigue of taking them to the office doing all the paperwork and everything they just ignore it just to like let it go so they won’t have to do all that paperwork and stuff.”
Another student, Paola, says she feels like security singles her out: “I think my race, and the way I dress. Like I always have people come up to me like, ‘Oh are you a BB?’ Like a gang, the Border Brothers.”
But what’s most frustrating to these students is the punishments. Students say they get sent home from school for minor infractions, which just gets them farther behind in their work. Alex, who is a sophomore, says that’s counter productive. He’d rather see school officials take a different approach, like “give him the opportunity, ‘cause if they go home they’re not really gonna do anything but miss days and not learn.”
Restorative justice is only in its first year at Skyline and already you can see some progress. But this approach to discipline is time consuming and not everyone on campus is on board with it.
“It’s very hard, because people have different priorities and different ways of approaching whatever the problems are on our campus,” says Sonia Black.
Black says changing the culture of a school can be difficult, especially when there are nearly 2,000 students to account for. “Maybe there has to be a consequence but lets figure out the root of the problem is first.”
Restorative justice is starting to be used in public schools around the country. Oakland Unified is one of the first school districts to actually implement it. And after the first year of trying it at Skyline, there’s still a lot more work to be done.
Next year, the school will get its own coordinator and more support for mediation on campus. And by 2018, they expect to have made the transition to restorative justice complete.
Sarah O'Neal is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland. Mills reporters spent a semester getting to know the kids, teachers and culture of Skyline High School to bring us a portrait of the school.