Program Aims to Restore Rather Than Suspend Troubled Students

A kid gets in a fight at school or yells at a teacher. What happens next might be suspension or expulsion. Or on a campus with a school resource officer, what happens could easily be an arrest.

Out of school and on the streets, with nothing but time on their hands, it's not hard for suspended or expelled kids to find more serious trouble. It's the start of what Fania Davis and others call the school-to-prison pipeline.

Davis is a civil rights attorney, longtime racial justice activist, and the co-founder and executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, or RJOY.

In 2006, Davis said, the organization started a restorative-justice pilot program at an Oakland middle school. It amazed even its founders by reducing suspension rates by more than 80 percent.

Davis will be the keynote speaker at the fifth annual North Puget Sound Conference on Race. The free event is scheduled for Saturday in Discovery Hall on the University of Washington Bothell campus. Sponsored by the Communities of Color Coalition, it's a chance for students, families, educators and others to talk about diversity and equal opportunity in education, the justice system, employment and other avenues of life.

“The school-to-prison pipeline in the last few decades has paralleled an explosion in incarcerations,” Davis said Friday by phone from California. “When I was in school we never saw a police officer. Now kids' normal adolescent behavior is being criminalized.”

Davis described how restorative justice works to keep kids in school and out of the downward spiral into crime and prison.

“Let's say Tommy has his head down on the desk and the teacher asks him to sit up straight. He ignores her, so she uses a louder, more commanding voice,” Davis said. “By the third time, her yelling gets a rise out of him. He jumps up and is yelling back an angry stream of obscenities. The principal ends up in the middle of the fray. Tommy is still yelling and the principal is ready to call security and suspend him.”

Through a restorative justice program first launched at Cole Middle School in Oakland, California, the solution looks different.

A restorative justice coordinator takes the kid to a peacemaking room and asks if he's OK. Davis said the example of Tommy is based on a real situation in which the 14-year-old was caring for two younger siblings after his mother had relapsed into substance abuse.

Through a “circle” in lieu of suspension, the boy's mother was brought in. She recommitted to treatment resources. The teacher told her story of feeling traumatized by the incident. In talking about how to repair the relationships, it was agreed that the boy, who accepted responsibility, would help the teacher with chores and ask for help if he had more troubles.

Today, Davis said, the Oakland Unified School District has restorative justice programs in nearly 40 schools and, with some city funding, has committed more than $2 million and dozens of staff members to the effort. Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth is also working with the juvenile justice system there in hopes of expanding the program beyond schools. “We're working to reduce racial disparities in discipline,” Davis said.

David Ortiz, who teaches humanities and communications courses at Cascadia College, is a Communities of Color Coalition member helping plan Saturday's event. “This is a great opportunity to get everyone in a safe environment to talk about what's important,” he said Friday.

As one of the state's largest counties, Snohomish County is seeing big demographic changes. “How are we going to get along? What future do we want to build for our children?” Ortiz said.

Among participants will be the NAACP Snohomish County Branch and members of theTulalip Tribes, he said.

“Opportunity and access, those ongoing ideas are what this country was founded on. We can gather around these issues that haunt our society and talk about how we move forward,” Ortiz said.

In one of his classes, Ortiz recently gave students an abbreviated version of the U.S. citizenship test. Students gain empathy by seeing what an immigrant must learn to become a citizen.

“One thing that comes out of the conference is empathy,” he said. “And empathy is a critical piece to getting the conversation started.”

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460;