Not long ago there was a food fight at Ralph Bunche High School. And Angel Hernandez is in trouble. He’s 18, a senior, and he’s not admitting anything happened. He’s slouched in his chair in a circle in a room whose walls are covered with positive messages: ‘Respect,’ ‘Listen,’ ‘Trust.’ His mom, Maria Ramirez, sits at his side. Also in the circle is the cafeteria worker Miss Mina, and she looks pretty ticked off. “Everybody starts throwing stuff,” she says. “I said excuse me, how old are you guys? You guys want to clean up my kitchen?”
Miss Mina and Angel have been butting heads for a while now. Just a couple of weeks before this, he was in this same room for a different circle about his behavior in the cafeteria – that time Miss Mina said he was disrespectful with her in the cafeteria line. There’s an obvious tension between them—they can’t even look at one another. Also in the circle is restorative justice coordinator Eric Butler. He’s the one pushing for answers and accountability. “There were pictures, there were witnesses,” he tells Angel, hoping to get him to take responsibility. Butler knows that these circles only work is if the person who caused harm admits that he did so. He says Angel’s attitude is familiar. “Our boys, whenever they get in trouble their defense mechanism is to act as if they are in court,” he says. “An apology is an admission of guilt, so I’ll just say I didn’t do anything. It’s hard for them to understand that there is no case to fight, the only thing we need you to do is to repair the harm in your community so they’ll be accepted back in their community.” Angel may feel like he’s in court, but the goal of this conversation isn’t punishment. It’s a deeper understanding of what’s causing bad behavior. Miss Mina, the cafeteria worker, says something that makes Angel’s mom’s cheeks turn red. “A teacher came to me twice telling me that Angel had problems, that he had been kicked out of his aunt and uncle’s house, and I said what are you trying to tell me? I go, what do you want me to do? She said, I don’t think Angel’s eating but, that’s not my problem.” Angel’s mom jumps in to defend her son. “I just want to let her know that he gets fed at home,” she says. “I’m not going to eat and leave my child without eating.” She adds, “But I appreciate everything you guys have done. Butler later says there’s more going on here, and that some of the fault lies with Miss Minna. They’ll schedule another meeting, without Angel’s mom. No-suspension policy No matter the outcome Angel won’t be suspended—the school has a no-suspension policy. “After a while you begin to see that what you’re doing is not working, you keep kicking them out and they come back,” says Principal Betsye Steele. “The same with suspensions: you suspend them and they come back and you are dealing with the same thing all over again.” Steele says that the 200 students enrolled at Bunche are here because it’s their last resort – they’ve been kicked out of other schools, or are on the verge of dropping out. So when they enroll here, it’s a little different. The school starts using restorative practices from the very first day. For starters, students have to come to an orientation with a clear plan for family support. “This is the first time that these parents and students have to come and sit with the principal and talk about what each is going to bring to the pot,” says Steele. A Racial Component Programs like the one at Bunche are getting more popular—but suspension rates are still high throughout the state. And there’s a racial component to who’s suspended. For example, in Alameda county, African American students make up 6.5 percent of total enrollment, but 19 percent of suspensions. Hispanic students are also overrepresented. By comparison, white students are 26 percent of total enrollment, but just 20 percent of suspensions. To Principal Steele, these numbers are chilling, especially since the majority of her students are Black and Latino. “What we are doing is really I would venture to say illegal when you think of the number of Latinos and African Americans suspended in comparison to other students,” she says. And lawmakers have taken notice. Last year, the assembly passed four bills aimed at curbing suspensions. One which was AB1729 , requiring administrators in most cases to suspend students only as a last resort Now, in Oakland alone there are 27 schools that have some type of restorative program. At Bunche, the graduation rate is over 90%. And over three quarters of their students are on the honor roll. “Make no mistake, it’s a hard job,it takes a lot of focus,” says Steele. I have to know exactly what’s going on with that child, not only on the site but also off the site.” Back to the books Back In the Restorative Justice classroom, Eric Butler tells Angel that he should have his lunch at one of the outside tables until the circle next week. Then he throws in a pep talk about staying on track with his grades. “I just want you to do better grow, cause you got two A’s, two D pluses and two no marks, so we’re going to work on that,” Butler tells the teen. Then, Angel is asked to hug his mom, which he does. Everyone slowly files out of the room. When the circle is over, Angel says he realizes that at a different school he’d be suspended and says he was glad he was in the Restorative Justice circle. “I feel like she heard my side of the story I heard her side of the story,” he says. But before he walks out the door he reminds us. “There was no food fight.” Angel actually never ends up going to another circle—Eric Butler says they’re just going to watch him and see how things go. That’s what they do when the circles don’t work—just keep the door open for students to come back in anytime and talk.