An Alternative To Suspension And Expulsion: 'Circle Up!' : NPR Ed Oakland's restorative justice program is at the forefront of efforts to rethink school discipline.

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Some of America's public school districts are taking a very different approach to discipline. Certain minority communities especially want to reduce unusually high rates of expulsion and suspension. Some districts are trying to resolve conflicts through talking in a process called restorative justice. NPR's Eric Westervelt has the first of two reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: One by one, in a room just off the gym floor at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, California, seventh graders go on the interview hot-seat.


KYLE MCCLERKINS: What is the biggest challenge for middle school girls?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Just drama, I guess - just like friendships and gossip and rumors.

WESTERVELT: Eighty students have applied to be peer leaders in the school's new restorative justice program. But there are only about 30 openings. So before they become part of the school's frontline help in deescalating fights and conflicts, they get a bit of a grilling by the program's director, Kyle McClerkins.


MCCLERKINS: What has changed about you from a sixth grade up until now? How do you feel you've changed?


WESTERVELT: The fact that students are taking the lead, that so many want to be part of this alternative discipline program, shows it's starting to take root.

TA-BITI GIBSON: Instead of throwing a punch, they're asking for the circle. And they're backing off, and they're asking to mediate it peacefully with words. Aside from just getting into it - come on, bro, let's do this. And that's a great thing.

WESTERVELT: Ta-Biti Gibson is the school's restorative justice co-director. Last school year, the program's first, he says kids just weren't ready to call for a circle to talk things out. This year, he says, it's different.

GIBSON: Come up to me, Mr. Gibson, I'm having trouble with so and so. So I need to circle up with her. I need to circle up with her. Last year it wasn't the same. Last year, there was a lot of different conflict going on, a lot of different fights.

WESTERVELT: Edna Brewer Middle School tried to start this talking circle approach a few years ago. But problems with teacher buy-in, training and turnover killed it before it got off the ground. And it's still a big work in progress.

PRINCIPAL SAM PASAROW: I believe our staff is struggling with restorative justice because I think, at times, teachers might feel that a consequence didn't come down on a student when it should have.

WESTERVELT: That's Principal Sam Pasarow. He says they're trying to work with the handful of teachers who have yet to embrace the approach, those who say, it's my job to teach academics, not lead "Kumbaya" talking circles when kids misbehave.

PASAROW: Some of the feedback we've gotten is, I don't know how to teach circle. I don't know how to have kind of deep conversations about my feelings and emotions with students. And I think that's a really, I guess, valid pushback that we would get from teachers who are credentialed to teach a subject and not kind of lead - and it's not group therapy. It's community building.

WESTERVELT: But some critics say it's pretty close to group therapy. And some kids might think they can rig the system and get away with behaving badly if they talk about their feelings. Still, students here say the harm circle talks do come with consequences. That's the restorative part, including school community service, apologies, public acknowledgment of their bad behavior and more.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: It makes it so they're, like, not as a judgmental.

WESTERVELT: At lunchtime, I ask students, including 13-year-old Kweko Power and 12-year-old Eva Jones, if they'd seen any difference this year in terms of school culture, discipline and community. Both say the program has helped classmates trust each other more and that there are fewer hurtful rumors, gossip and fights.

KWEKO POWER: It seems easier now to, like, make friends with people 'cause, like, people are less angry and defensive. Yeah, it's just way easier.

EVA JONES: There was, like, a lot of fights. It was like every other week there was a fight. And now, it's like a fight once per year.

WESTERVELT: Well, not quite. About a half hour later, I hear yelling. In the gym, pushing and verbal sparring has descended into a full-blown, fist flying fight between a seventh-grade boy and an eighth-grade girl.


MCCLERKINS: Hold them back, coach.

RODNEY: I was hit by (unintelligible).

MCCLERKINS: Rodney, come here.

WESTERVELT: The program's director, Kyle McClerkins, has pinned the boy to the gym floor.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking through handheld radio, unintelligible).

WESTERVELT: After the students are pulled apart and people calm down, a harm circle is planned with parents, teachers and the two kids who were fighting. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

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