"It was cool, because if Eric wasn't here, I probably would have been suspended, but he taught me a way to handle things," Mercedes says. She has surprised herself by managing to avoid fights ever since.
Restorative justice, which has cut suspensions by more than half at Bunche, is one of several strategies the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) is embracing as it attempts a seismic shift in the culture of discipline – from punitive to preventive, exclusion to inclusion.
A model of restorative justice
Increasingly, adults here are tossing lifelines to students who've had trouble at home, felt harassed by police, or witnessed traumatizing crimes in one of the most violent cities in the country. Oakland's overall rate of suspension mirrors the nation's, with about 7 percent of OUSD students suspended in the 2010-11 school year. School discipline is now a focus because, for years, African-American students have been suspended and expelled at very high rates.
In the 2011-12 school year, African-Americans made up 32 percent of Oakland's students but 63 percent of the students suspended. In middle schools, principals suspended about 1 out of 3 black boys.
The US Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights investigated whether the discipline was discriminatory. Before making a legal finding, OCR collaborated with the district last fall on a five-year voluntary resolution plan to reduce suspensions, expulsions, and the racial disparity.
"We have been working really hard to basically move away from a zero-tolerance strategy ... [and create a] culture that is about healing from harm and restoring a sense of relationship," said Tony Smith, OUSD superintendent, at a press conference announcing the plan. "There have been deep and long-term structural reasons ... that have excluded and pushed out boys of color, and most often ... our African-American boys. The waste of so much human potential is not only unacceptable in Oakland, but across the country."