All three girls agreed to attend a "circle," an eye-to-eye talk in the folding chairs in "Eric's room" that are always set up in the round. The anger was palpable at first, but Mercedes apologized – and explained that she'd stolen the shoes to sell them so she could help her mom pay for a drug test. If her mom could prove to the court that she was clean, she might be able to get Mercedes's younger siblings returned to her from protective custody. When the other girls saw Mercedes crying, they empathized and gave her a hug. They didn't ask her to replace what she'd stolen, but they wanted to know that, going forward, she would be trustworthy.
That was shortly after Mercedes had arrived last fall at the 250-student Bunche Academy, a continuation school where she was sent after being expelled because of too many fights at Oakland High School.
"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.