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Several big urban school districts including Chicago, Denver and Oakland are trying to fundamentally change how they discipline students. Restorative justice aims to reduce suspensions and expulsions and the racial disparity of those punishments - black male students are suspended at much higher rates than their white counterparts.
NPR's Eric Westervelt has this report from one Oakland middle school.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: This morning I reported on how restorative justice is working at Edna Brewer Middle School in Oakland, when a fight broke out.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIGHT)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hold him back, coach.
WESTERVELT: Lunchtime teasing in the gym quickly turned ugly. An eighth-grade girl, Briona and seventh-grade boy, Rodney, are separated. The school has asked us not to use their full names. The school's restorative justice co-leader, Kyle McClerkins, a big guy, has to pin the 12-year-old boy to the gym floor.
KYLE MCCLERKINS: He started kicking me so I was like, all right, well I'm just going to get you on the grounds and I'm just going to put my weight on you and keep you until you can calm down, basically.
WESTERVELT: After a weekend cooling-off time, the school schedules what they call a harm circle. At first blush, the circle looks a little California-flaky. Parents, teachers and the students sit in a circle of desks. On a small decorative stand in the middle sit a rock, feather, candle and water representing earth, air, fire and water. But Rodney's mom, Tozma, sets the tone early on.
TOZMA: I be worried about Rodney, like, he's tall for his age. A lot of stuff happen to black boys, and I try to get that across to him.
WESTERVELT: Tozma, who's raising her son on her own, tells the circle she's deeply worried about where her 12-year-old is headed.
TOZMA: Talk to Rodney like he your own son. I'm not the parent that's going to argue with you about chastising my child or not because I want him to be here. I don't want him to be in jail.
WESTERVELT: He has an anger problem, she says, and she tries to get him counseling. Then Briona's mother, Marshae, looks at Rodney and with a mix of gentle reprimand and warning, talks about her son.
MARSHAE: My son is 18 and he used to go to counseling and they'd say, oh, he's angry - but he knew you don't hit a female. Now, he was running track, played football. He's in jail, been there for 213 days. He just turned 18 in jail. You don't want to go there.
WESTERVELT: This kind of communication is central to alternative discipline. Here are two moms sharing fear and worry about raising kids through hard times in a tough neighborhood. It's not a he-said-she-said breakdown of a fight. The hope is that dialogue builds trust, community and reduces the need for suspensions and expulsions. Oakland Unified, one of California's largest districts, has been a national leader in expanding restorative justice. The district is one-third African-American and more than 70 percent low income. The programs expanded after a federal civil rights agreement in 2012 to reduce school discipline disproportionality for African-American students. This circle does eventually get around to the fight and who did what. Rodney shows a little remorse with a whispered apology, but his mom is not satisfied she's reaching him.
TOZMA: Like, not hanging in the hallways, go straight to class, actually eat your lunch at lunchtime. Like, what you going to do to make sure you stay out of trouble? Because I don't want to come back up here.
WESTERVELT: Rodney pauses, thinks and answers his skeptical mom in a quiet voice.
RODNEY: I don't want to have no more problems.
TOZMA: Is that it? What do you plan on doing to make sure these kind of incidents don't happen again?
RODNEY: Like, I won't play with people and stuff. Like, I won't horseplay and stuff like that.
WESTERVELT: Then the girl, Briona, admits she helped instigate by yanking his backpack and teasing. It's agreed as a group the students will have to post anti-bullying posters and do after-school service work and they'll have to do joint morning announcements offering tips on how students might get along better. Rodney's mom ends the meeting with a thanks.
TOZMA: We really don't have a man voice at home, that's why I tell you to talk to him like that. So I appreciate it, everybody, and just keep working with my child.
RODNEY: I appreciate my mom for not giving up on me.
WESTERVELT: As the circle breaks up, Briona's father Al tells Rodney, I can tell your mom will never give up on you.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Oakland.
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