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The rise of restorative justice in California schools brings promise, controversy

The two 9th-grade girls heard the laughing the minute they walked into their third-period class that December morning at Oakland’s Fremont High School. And they knew why: a video of one of the girls being slapped by a classmate had gone viral among students on social media.

It was one of those moments that could have gone bad in a hurry — like so many others had at Fremont High, a school that had more suspensions last year than any other in the Oakland Unified School District.

Both girls (whose names are being withheld to protect their privacy) acknowledged later that their first instinct was to lash out at their snickering classmates. But they didn’t do that. Instead, they left the classroom and walked down the hall to Tatiana Chaterji’s room.

Chaterji is Fremont High’s restorative justice facilitator and among a growing number of educators in Oakland Unified charged with changing the district’s approach to behavioral issues through restorative practices. This work departs from traditional school discipline in that it focuses less on punishment and more on righting wrongs and building healthy relationships within the school.

During the previous period, the two girls had participated in a community building circle, a cornerstone of restorative justice in which students gather in a circle, talk about the difficulties of their daily lives and work on responding to them in a healthier way.

“What would have happened had you stayed (in the classroom)?” Chaterji asked the girls after they had told her their story.

“They would have said some things, then I would have said some things…then things could have gotten ugly,” said the more assertive of the two, who was wearing an ankle monitor from the Alameda County Juvenile Probation Department.

Had things gotten out of hand, punches might have been thrown. That would’ve led to an office referral and perhaps suspensions. Such an outcome would be an unfortunate but not uncommon occurrence at Fremont, which, according to district data, suspended 151 students during the 2016-17 school year.


Tatiana Chaterji, the restorative justice facilitator at Fremont High School in the Oakland Unified School District.

Fremont High hired Chaterji last summer as part of a larger effort to improve the school’s climate and cut down on suspensions. The school also employs three case managers who work to alleviate conflicts that crop up in classrooms before they become office referrals.

“People’s trust in the process is growing,” Chaterji said. “The leadership has really shifted to prioritize [restorative justice]…we are at an exciting moment, but it’s just the start.”

A new approach to an old problem

Small victories like the one that morning at Fremont High are being won to varying degrees in schools throughout California. Over the past decade, a mountain of research has shown that the so-called zero-tolerance approach to misbehavior, characterized by stringent rules and harsh punishments, largely doesn’t work.

In particular, studies have shown unequivocally that students of color are suspended and expelled at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers, which has forced a reassessment of school discipline in many places throughout the nation.

Teachers and administrators have come to realize that a student’s range of experiences — their home life, their neighborhood and the overall atmosphere of the school — has an outsized impact on their behavior in class. Research shows that by gaining insight into these experiences and building stronger relationships with students, educators can address a number of behaviors without having to resort to suspensions and other punitive methods of discipline.

This awakening, along with intense pressure on districts from the state in recent years to cut down on suspensions, have spawned a number of behavioral support programs under the umbrella of social/emotional learning, including Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS).

Interwoven in these approaches is the idea of restorative justice, which has both captured the imagination of many youth advocates and educators and generated controversy.

In recent years, some of the state’s largest districts have made significant investments in restorative justice:

  • Oakland Unified budgeted roughly $2.5 million for restorative justice in the 2017-18 school year, which pays for 35 facilitators and a districtwide coordinator.
  • The Los Angeles Unified School District budgets more than $10 million annually for restorative justice and has a goal of implementing the practices in each of its more than 900 schools by 2020.
  • Following the lead of Los Angeles Unified, the San Diego Unified School District board last year approved a “School Climate Bill of Rights” that is centered on restorative practices. The board also approved a nearly $800,000 budget for restorative justice in 2017-18, which pays for a districtwide program manager along with several other staff members.
  • The Santa Ana Unified School District received a multi-year, $3 million federal grant to implement restorative practices in schools throughout the district.

Although the terms restorative justice and restorative practices were largely unheard of in the school setting as recently as a decade ago, the work in many respects builds on conflict mediation strategies that schools have used since the 1990s.

Yet many see restorative justice as groundbreaking because at its core is a repudiation of the punitive model that has been the foundation of school discipline in this country since the days of the one-room schoolhouse.


A community building circle in Tatiana Chaterji’s classroom at Fremont High School in the Oakland Unified School District.

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