Pass the Talking Stick and Listen Closely: Restorative Justice in Los Angeles Unified Schools

By Josh DuBose

September 19, 2017

photo by navymailman

LOS ANGELES – “Restorative justice is a philosophy and a way of being in a school community,” says Deborah Brandy, director of district operations for Los Angeles Unified School District. In many ways, LAUSD, the largest district in California and the second largest in the country – behind the New York City school system – is leading the charge to change the way public schools approach discipline in the K-12 educational system.

In May 2013, LAUSD became the first district in the state to ban suspensions for acts of “willful defiance,” a term of art in education that, as officials discovered, is not very artful. Brandy says that five years ago, when the L.A. Board of Education looked at suspension data, they were distressed to learn that a disproportionate number of African American students and students with disabilities were bearing the brunt of suspensions for “willful defiance.”

“When the state attempted to define ‘willful defiance,'” she says, “it was very vague.”

The overly broad phrase was used to punish students for any number of seemingly minor offenses, such as refusing to turn a cellphone off, not wearing a school uniform, failing to bring homework to class or refusing to take off a hat. The data revealed that African American students, which make up nine percent of the district’s population, accounted for 26 percent of students suspended in 2011-2012 school year.

In response, the L.A. Board of Education adopted the School Climate Bill of Rights in May 2013, which not only banned suspensions for “willful defiance,” but also began the process of implementing restorative justice practices in schools, with the goal of having these programs district wide by 2020.

Restorative justice, says Marc Rosner, comes to us by way of indigenous peoples. Rosner is the cofounder of Circle Ways, an organization that provides training and facilitation in restorative justice and the “way of council” circle practices he refers to as pan-cultural.

“Our native ancestors gathered around fires to talk, to dance, to sing. Those circles were used for governance, for storytelling, for making group decisions and resolving conflict,” Rosner says.

In contrast to the criminal justice system, which is a reactionary model – someone breaks the law and they’re punished – restorative justice in schools is largely about building community before wrongdoing occurs. “If we have not built community,” he notes, “there is nothing to restore when wrongdoing occurs.” Rosner uses the example of the criminal justice system to make the point that most defendants never take the witness stand, so as not to incriminate themselves and. As a result, while they may be punished for their actions, there’s no true accountability. With restorative justice in public education, says Rosner, facilitators are starting to realize that doesn’t work for schools.

“It can’t be just about discipline. Restorative justice is really about accountability, about being seen and heard by everyone there. We start with council, coming together in a circle on a regular basis to build community, regardless of trouble or not,” Rosner says.

While Director Brandy awaits the arrival of the first three-year surveys from schools with fully implemented restorative justice programs, from which they will examine the data and have measurable outcomes, she already sees restorative justice making a difference on campuses across the district.

She cites one incidence of a high school student who, as a joke, posted a threat on social media that shut down a school. Once the student realized what was happening, they immediately deleted their post, but the wheels of the criminal justice system were already spinning. The student was arrested and placed in the county juvenile facility. At court, instead of sentencing the student to additional time in custody, the judge turned the student over to the district’s restorative justice program. Brandy says the child not only learned how their actions affected the school community, but also participated in a repairing-the-harm circle with LAUSD administration officials, including the associate superintendent, herself and the chief of police.

“Do I feel in my heart that that young man or young lady will repeat that behavior?” Brandy asks. “Absolutely not. But if we had just suspended this child, what would the child have really learned from that or, worse, sending that kid to juvenile hall.”

In a study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, researchers tabulated the financial cost of harsh disciplinary policies in public schools. The authors found that a single non-graduate can generate nearly $600,000 in economic losses over their lifetime due to decreased work productivity, higher criminal justice costs and greater healthcare expenses.

“The economic impact of school suspensions varies widely by school district with California’s largest districts incurring the greatest losses,” reports the Civil Rights Project. “For example, over the lifetimes of the 10th grade cohorts studied, suspensions in the Los Angeles Unified School District, California’s largest, are estimated to result in $148 million in economic damage.”

In 2007, LAUSD reported 74,000 suspensions for acts of “willful defiance.” Fast forward to now, says Brandy, we have maybe 6,000. Given the UCLA study’s calculations, the financial savings to citizens of Los Angeles County and society as a whole are well into the billions of dollars, if not, simply, immeasurable.

Implementing restorative justice in LAUSD has not come without its challenges however, say Brandy and Rosner.

“It’s always a combination of acceptance and pushback,” says Rosner, “and there will likely continue to be pushback because a restorative approach calls for a cultural shift. Resistance comes at both the student and teacher level. Often times, however, people who are resistant have eye-opening experiences.”

Brandy echoes this sentiment, saying some LAUSD staff at first responded with, “What do you mean I have to sit down and pass a talking-stick with my students?” Three years into the program, she says, the complaints have become more about when schools will get their restorative justice training and whether or not they can increase the number of faculty who receive the instruction. The district is able, at this point, to support 71 people who work directly with the schools and while every school would like to have a restorative justice facilitator on campus, Brandy says, the funding for that is a challenge.

“We’re just really fortunate that the district supports the work around restorative justice and has made a commitment and an investment in providing the funding for it,” she says.

In a district with 1,147 schools, 26,000 teachers and more than 700,000 students, implementing restorative justice practices takes time, but LAUSD is well on its way to meet the 2020 deadline and, in the process, changing the vocabulary, perspective and approach to life in the school community and beyond.

“This is something you can take from elementary to middle school, from middle to high school, from high school to college and out into the real world. These aren’t just strategies, they’re beliefs ongoing in life,” says Brandy.

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