Restorative Justice: Help is on the Way for Our Kids, Part I

14 year old student

Drawing by Elizabeth Wagele

When I was in high school, one punishment for kids who misbehaved was to get paddled. Later, physical violence was seen as counter-productive and replaced by suspending students and Zero-tolerance became popular among educators. Now many are seeing that suspending causes problems; the parents often aren’t home, the kids get into more trouble, and their schoolwork suffers when they aren’t in class. Several school districts use the method of Restorative Justice (RJ).


This blog is based on Fania Davis’ “Why Do Kids Act Out? Oakland Classrooms Try Healing Instead of Punishment,” 2-20-14, which she wrote for Education Uprising: The New Rebels Taking Back Our Public Schools in the Winter 2014 issue of YES! Davis is the co-founder and executive director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth. RJ brings together those who have a serious conflict in a face-to-face encounter. Participants listen and speak respectfully from the heart.


Eric Butler is the school coordinator for RJ for Oakland Youth. Davis presents this case to demonstrate how it works: “Tommy, an agitated 14-year-old high school student, was in the hallway cursing out his teacher at the top of his lungs. A few minutes earlier, in the classroom, he’d called her a “b___” after she twice told him to lift his head from the desk and sit up straight. Both Butler and the principal heard the ruckus and rushed to the scene. Though Butler tried to engage Tommy in conversation, he was in a rage and heard nothing. He even took a swing at Butler that missed. Grabbing the walkie-talkie to call security, the principal angrily told Tommy he would be suspended. ‘I don’t care if I’m suspended. I don’t care about anything,’ Tommy defiantly responded. Butler asked the principal to allow him to try a restorative approach with Tommy instead of suspending him.


“Butler immediately began to try to reach Tommy’s mother. This angered Tommy even more. ‘Don’t call my momma. She ain’t gonna do nothing. I don’t care about her either.’” The concern in Butler’s voice when he asked, “Is everything OK?” produced a shift in Tommy’s energy.


“’No, everything is not OK.’


“‘What’s wrong?’ Butler asked. Tommy was mistrustful and wouldn’t say anything else. ‘Man, you took a swing at me, I didn’t fight back. I’m just trying my best to keep you in school. You know I’m not trying to hurt you. Come to my classroom. Let’s talk.’


“… Slowly, the boy began to open up and share what was weighing on him. His mom, who had been successfully doing drug rehabilitation, had relapsed. She’d been out for three days. The 14-year-old was going home every night to a motherless household and two younger siblings. He had been holding it together as best he could, even getting his brother and sister breakfast and getting them off to school. He had his head down on the desk in class that day because he was exhausted from sleepless nights and worry.


“After the principal heard Tommy’s story, he said, ‘We were about to put this kid out of school, when what he really deserved was a medal.’


“Eric tracked down Tommy’s mother… and facilitated a restorative justice circle with her, Tommy, the teacher, and the principal. Tommy told his story. On the day of the incident, he had not slept, and he was hungry and scared. He felt the teacher was nagging him. He’d lost it. Tommy apologized.” Then the teacher told her story.


See this blog of 4-22-14 for Part II.



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