Case study: an alternative to “zero-tolerance” discipline in West Oakland

Cole Middle School. File photo by Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group

A social justice center at UC Berkeley’s law school published a case study today that highlights the successes, challenges and potential of restorative justice in schools, based on observations at the (now closed) Cole Middle School in West Oakland.

Restorative Justice is a set of principles designed to build community, prevent violence, correct behavior, and to repair harm, as well as frayed relationships. It’s an alternative to the traditional school discipline model, and the centers believe it could be a way to reduce the disproportionately high suspension rates of black and Latino students. You can find a lengthy description and online resources here, on the district’s website.

This is not a data-heavy report, but it does give a promising stat: The suspension rate at Cole dropped by 87 percent and expulsions went to zero after the program was implemented. Check out the graphs on page 31, if you have a chance.

It was an interesting read, especially if you make it beyond the executive summary. It’s clear that the author(s) spent lots of time at the school, observing and talking to people. (I think I met a law student working on this project — Atteeyah Hollie, maybe? — at a Cole event in 2008, after a gun went off in a classroom.)

Here’s a section on negative assumptions that some had, going in:

Some adults mentioned negative assumptions about West Oakland residents. As a result, they did not believe restorative justice would be successful. One preconception was that some students were too hardened to benefit from what was perceived as a non-punitive intervention. For these adults, only punitive measures were appropriate for discipline cases, since they believed the adolescents were not capable of transformation. Similarly, some felt that the wider culture of West Oakland valued strength and that the openness required by restorative justice could be seen as weakness. Others thought restorative justice violated the code against snitching. …

A second preconception was that students simply acted without reflection, or that they were incapable of deep feeling or empathy. This assumption resulted in the further belief that the circles asked things of the students that were beyond their capabilities. In fact, multiple instances belied these assumptions, as the students demonstrated a variety of emotions and showed sensitivity to the people and the events that took place around them. Some students reflectively evaluated the potential consequences of their and others’ actions and appropriately moderated behavior because of this awareness. Even some who held this preconception thought restorative justice created a new culture that valued openness at the school.

The Oakland school board passed a restorative justice resolution last December. Have any of these initiatives come to your school?

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • oaklandteacher

    At East Oakland School of the Arts (EOSA), we received some training on restorative justice and 4 of us teachers have already attended a 2 day training to begin circles at our school. The rest of the staff will attend the training before the end of the school year and we are slowly progressing to a full restorative justice model which I am really excited about.

  • Marie-Claude Provencher

    One piece of noteworthy information about Cole Middle School is that as restorative justice practices were started, the API score of the school went up 85 points from 2007 to 2009.

  • Rick


    This is the type of nonsence that is destroying our black children. I don’t think it’s doing white kids any good either. This is one more example of why Cole middle schoool is closed.

    Next they will wont this nonsence in our churches. The children at my church are respectful, no saging pants and disciplined. Why don’t we try what is working in our black churches? It don’t cost any money!

    I’ve herd old Pastor Smith say years ago, “White liberals wont to dumb down our children and turn them against Us” I didn’t believe it back then, but now it’s worst. Our own people are in on it in the name of “Social Justic” or in this case REstorative Justice Resloution”. God help us!

  • Nextset

    Rick is correct.

    White liberals want no discipline for Negroes while properly disciplining white children, and white adults.

  • East Oakland Principal

    Nextset and Rick:

    Really? You know the race of the people behind this initiative simply by reading about it? You believe that compassion and empathy and looking for healing are elements of a plot aimed to destroy the black community? Are compassion, empathy, and a need for healing race-specific attributes?

    I’m curious: how much time have either of you spent with families, counseling them after their children bring the violence they’ve learned from the streets and their homes into the schools? I do this for a living. Respect and safety and a sense of belonging to a community are universals, things that all humans require. And, no, they can’t be “beat” into a child. They need to be modeled.

    Another question: roughly, what percentage of black children (or children of any race, for that matter) in our city attend church regularly? So all of this is a white plot? What about a generalized attitude of apathy, black, brown, and white, towards our children’s cries for leadership and models of self-respect as a more likely cause of the decline of safety in our communities?

    What, precisely, are the ways that the “white” community is preventing other communities from teaching about self-control, compassion for others, and a sense of personal responsibility? I see these being taught everyday in the families I work with, without violence, without trauma, and without threat. Why do you believe this is this a “white” thing?

    Justice is needed, and yes, it needs to be about restoring peace and safety in a community, not about sadistic threats and punishments. The current practice of simply suspending and expelling youths from schools doesn’t solve any problems; it just, literally, sweeps them out of view. If I expel a youth, what happens to that youth next year, at the next school? Statistically, it has been shown that this simply starts the recurring cycle of increasingly harsh (and ineffective) punishments that land our city’s young black and brown men in prison.

    If I were looking for a plot against communities of color, I would look at the criminal justice system! Why should elementary, middle, and high schools participate in feeding into that broken machinery that destroys so many of our young men? Shouldn’t we be looking for ways of stopping the cycle when we have the opportunity?

    I’ve used the theories of restorative justice at my school for several years, and the only effects I have seen have been a 100% reduction in the numbers of suspension and expulsion, and an increase in our rates of enrollment and attendance, along with an 85 point increase in our API score in two years. I didn’t realize that peace, safety, achievement, and a sense of belonging were part of a larger plot to destroy communities of color!

  • Rick

    East Oakland Principal,

    We have never suspened or kicked a child out in our church. We use good ole fashion common sence and it works.

    You talk about “peace, safety,and achievement.” This is “social justice” for who? Is that what you call it when our black children in Oakland can’nt get in and graduate from UC Berkeley and are killing each other?

    You talk about increased API scores of 85pts in two years. That ain’t a big deal when most of the kids can’t read, write and do math. I’m old but not foolish. Cause this tells me the API is a joke that is used to make us believe you are educating children. Mrs. Spearman is having to fight to find out if 1 black child in Oakland passed the AP math.That right there tell us there is something wrong. This AP stuff is national; politcan and educators can’t fudge the numbers. How is your students doing on these AP Exams after all the social justice and you braging that you don’t kick them out anymore?

    What school are you at, I will get my grandson to drive me there. I’d love to see you doing a super job with our children, but I don’t believe it and I hope to be wrong.

    What’s this “communities of color” junk? Child, white people do have color just like the rest of us. You either blind or been misinformed.

  • Alice Spearman

    East Oakland Principal, plenty of East Oakland Youth attend church on a regular basis!
    May I ask what is your schools’s API?

  • Yoli

    The East Oakland Principal…. he cannot even say principal, he wants to make sure he states “East Oakland” like if that is going to get him some credibility.

    Look….My kids go to church regularly, and we have had someone in our family who dies a violent death, and to be honest, while I appreciate the understanding of the leaership at my kids school- I do not need the counseling. Your job is not to console, your job is to assure my kids are getting a solid education so they will not be next! My pastor consoles us.

    And Yes- most black folk and kids go to church regularly. I agree with Rick in that liberal perspectives and excuses have hurt our people. You say Rsetorative Justice, I say we have never had it to begin with.

    I look at it as saving my children- one kid at a time because I also feel that the weakness shown by your prople in education towards us is the next phase of in the eradication of black folk.

  • del

    Ms. Spearman, every time you post you remind me of Abraham Lincoln’s quote: “it is better to sit quietly and appear to be a fool than open your mouth and remove all doubt.” I do not think that any of your employees deserve to be questioned by you on the internet. Secondly, the restorative justice program is a “school board priority”—that means you might not want to argue against it in public either, as the quote above suggests.
    For those of you who think that church is an answer, I do not disagree. What is working in our churches, however, is PARENTING. A stable home is NOT the norm for students in our public schools. However you are wildly inaccurate in your beliefs about the number of children in church, please take the opportunity to drive around any Oakland neighborhood at 11 am on a Sunday, and tell me those children on street corners are in their church clothes. All that being said, we have had to expel two children of pastors from my school in the last 7 months.
    Here is a program that, according to this research (and the research that led it to be implemented in the first place, and the research on adolescent brain development) is effective. Obviously what we are currently doing is not working. Here is something that is working. Why would we not give it a try? Or are we happy with the current death, destruction, drugs, and dropouts that plague our community?

  • Nextset

    I could argue rather easily that the “Black Church” is part of the problem. My parents and most of their siblings were very careful to keep my cousins and I completely away from the “Black Church”. We were all brought up Catholic.

    The animosity goes back at least to the turn of the Century and my Grandparents in 1900 and their families. There must be a good story in it since the Great-Grandparents were bigwigs in “Black Church”. At that time the black public/private schools were tied to black churches. The great-grandparents were educators and politicians as well as church figures. It would appear the grandparents (must have) had a falling out with their parents, walked out and moved to the midwest, severing ties. WWII finally brought my parents’ generation all the way west to CA. Whatever was going on seems to have been widespread amoung the grandparent’s cousins also. All of them made that jump to other churches. And none of them could be made to explain anything. They were busy and they moved. My parent’s generation claim they have no clue what happened. End of story.

    It was all part of the aparthied world “back east” I never knew. I understand the food was pretty good though.

    Back to the present – everything I see about the Black Churches helps explain the disaster the ghetto blacks have become. Sorry I’m not more politically correct, but that’s my experience. Regardless of when this trend started, the values taught in these churches are not those needed for advancement in the Brave New World. Instead they promote what we see in their congregants. Behavior and values inconsistent with upward economic & social mobility.

    The Johnson Publishing Co. in the 1960s put out a hardback “Black Society in America” book that covered prominent black families of the era with their history. I seem to remember religious references that were interesing at the time – Protestant maybe? Catholic, not AME, that’s for sure. They were clearly “Egyptian” anyway. Black Churches are not identifed with upward mobility, more the opposite.

    The ghetto would be far better off converting to Mormon, with all that entails. If they’d have them.

    And I’m not religious. But. It’s easy to see the social, material and cultural progress of the Mormons among other modern cults such as the Catholics and compare them to the Black Churches.

    So I don’t think the Black Church is the answer, it’s part of the problem.

    You’re not going to see upward mobility in Blacks when they are in churches that teach anything goes, that push tolerance or forgiveness to the point their congregants like OJ, and all the other black bad actors (no pun intended). This is just the beginning of the problem with these churches.

    As far as managing the bad little black kids – try the Boy Scouts.

  • Rick


    You all “exspelled two children of pastors” at your school in the last 7 months. So, you keep track of parent’s job. So much for “social justice” and our children, based the information (research) you are keeping it seems like you guys have a problem working with preacher’s children.

    I have not read anything on this blog that Mrs. Spearman is against your social justice progam. Is there a law or policy that school board memember or OUsd employees can not give their input on this blog or you trying to “exspell” Mrs. Spearman from this conversation? I will keep you in my prayers tonight and at church on Sunday.

    Do you realize the contradiction in your method “restorative justice” with someone who has a differnt view than you? I encourage all of you to keep dishing it out, because I enjoy reading your different takes on our education system.

    And for everyone else, if your child is in the boy scouts, cub scouts, with priest who are scouts,etc. I advise you to keep an EyE on all of them.

  • Let’s Get Real

    I don’t have a problem with Restorative Justice as a part
    of the bigger picture of a positive school climate. This bigger picture includes a strong discipline policy and swift consequences for inappropriate behavior. It seems to me that using the Restorative Justice model for every disruption that might occur during the course of the school day would be extremely time-consuming and decrease instructional time even more than the disruptions themselves. In extreme cases, however, I can see how it might be very useful if used in addition to strong consequences.

  • Sue

    Seems to me there’s some confusion between discipline and punishment.

    Good old Webster’s gives:
    discipine – training that develops self-control, efficiency
    punish – to cause to undergo pain, loss as for a crime

    I would submit that my sons are rarely (maybe never) punished, but they are well disciplined.

    Maybe that is attributable to our family’s religious tradition. My husband was raised Southern Baptist, his father and maternal grandfather were ministers, so he got lots of punishment as a child. As an adolescent he rejected his “milk religion”. Similarly, I was raised Roman Catholic, and found my way out of the punative Christian sect as well.

    My husband and I are Pagans (specifically, we practice Wicca, and are elders in the NROOGD tradition). Our sons have been raised with the Wiccan Rede: “And it harm none, do what ye will.” Back when they were too small for that many words, we started with the simplified form: “Harm none.” It’s pretty simple, and it covers everything – don’t harm other people, don’t harm other living things, don’t harm other’s property, and don’t harm yourself (or allow others to harm you).

    Others have found good guidance in many varied religious paths and traditions. The problem I see with the religions my husband and I rejected was that members of those sects felt they were superior to those who didn’t belong to their “one, true religion”, and felt they could/should punish or harm anyone who wasn’t part of their particular club. We chose a religious tradition that doesn’t see itself as superior, or as the only way to “get to be with God in His heaven.” (We don’t even believe there is a Christian God, or devil either, and certainly no heaven or hell.) Among Wiccans (and most of Paganism) it doesn’t matter what one believes – what’s going on inside the skull is a personal thing – it matters what one does. Actions count. Every single Pagan-raised child I know, behaves in ways that make them welcome anywhere and everywhere they go. They have self-esteem and a strong sense of self-worth. They are polite and respectful of their elders, and even when they disagree with us – which they do, they have minds of their own – they do so respectfully.

    As Thomas Jefferson said: “Say nothing of my religion; it is known to myself and my God alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life; if that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.”

    Discipline is the tool – teaching self-control and self-regulation. Punishment is likely to fail, since it teaches avoidance of people who are more powerful than oneself and use their power to inflict pain. When young adults turn into good neighbors and good citizens after they grow up and leave their childhood homes, then the adults who raised them did their jobs. If they are criminals, leaches on society, or otherwise no-good-pieces-of-sh!t, then the adults who were responsible for them failed the child and the rest of us.

  • Sue

    Restorative Justice seems to me to be about discipline – teaching self-control. It doesn’t seem to be about a punishment system – inflicting pain and loss.

  • Let’s Get Real

    If all young people responded well to “Harm none,” how much easier our lives would be as teachers, parents, etc. Unfortunately (or fortunately) all children are different, and some need concrete consequences of some sort. Talk is not a strong enough deterrent for some children, and does not change their behavior. I agree that Restorative Justice does seem to teach self-control and other positive values, but even the study above about Cole indicated that traditional disciplinary measures had to be taken in cases where the RJ model did not work. Like it or not, the schools where strong discipline policies are in place produce better results–at least for African-American students. Make RJ a part of the picture–not the whole picture.

  • Nextset

    Regarding post 15, there is a belief that black children (group norms) require stronger discipline to get results that lighter discipline might get for other ethnics, Asians for example.

    Thus you do no favors by lightly chastising black boys who are misbehaving. Failure to get their attention and produce change in the short time you have before they can really do whatever they want, can mean the difference between prison or freedom.

    Likewise boys and girls require different levels of correction. Differences are physical, and hormonal.

  • Sue

    @Let’s Get Real, it’s true, not every kid will respond to “harm none” (thinking of a childhood cousin of mine who was diagnosed as a sociopath years later), but they are almost always remarkably willing to follow the example of the *actions* (not words) of their parents, or the other adults in their lives. Discipline includes words, of course, but it’s not limited to just words. It’s also about what parents (and other adults) do. Not only what we do with/for/about the kid’s behavior, but also how we treat other people while our youngsters are watching – and we shouldn’t be fooled into ever thinking they aren’t watching us. Sometimes they aren’t paying any attention, but I’m continually being surprised by the things that I thought had slipped by my sons unnoticed, and then one of them will ask a question or make a remark about whatever-it-was, and I realize that they were paying attention when I thought I was being ignored.

    Consequences are a part of good discipline. And the consequences should be tailored to the individual kid. With our sons, we generally let them take the naturally-occurring consequences of their actions. For example, a kid running around the house and jumping on the furniture. In our house, there’s one warning, “you could fall off that couch and hurt yourself.” Sure enough, the kid falls. He gets no sympathy (once we know there aren’t any broken bones) and a reminder that we’d warned him of the risk of falling. Next time, when he’s warned of the consequences of another unwelcome behavior, he’s also reminded about the past fall – “Do you want to hurt yourself again?”

    Obviously, that doesn’t work with some kids – there’s a level of brain development required that not every kid has. And equally obviously, the natural consequences of, say, running across a busy street, can’t be allowed to happen, or the kid could be dead and the parent facing the legal consequences of their neglect.

    But the opposite approach, punishment without even an attempt to discipline (i.e. teach) doesn’t seem to work out too well either. How many times have any of us watched a parent in a public place ignoring their kid who is acting out, trying to get some attention from that parent – who’s too busy talking on their cell phone, or looking at merchandise in the store, or whatever has their attention instead of their kid. Finally, the desperate child does something really outrageous (start throwing a tantrum, or pulling candy off the grocery shelves and putting it into the shopping cart), and the parent hits him/her. No discussion precedes or follows. The kid still has no idea how to get Mommy/Daddy to pay attention to him/her without resorting to bad behavior. Once s/he stops crying, s/he goes right back to doing whatever-it-was that finally got the parent’s attention. It would be a happier situation for both if the parent had noticed the kid trying to get some attention before the situation got out of control – either engage the kid in whatever has the parent’s attention (at the grocery store, ask if the little one would rather have orange juice or apple juice, or which brand of cereal has the better price if the kid is old enough to read the prices. That kind of thing.) If the adult really needs to focus on that cell phone conversation, pause for just a second, explain, briefly, why the call is important, and promise that it will be short, and that the kid will have the adult’s attention in two minutes, or in five, but a reasonable short period of time that a kid that age can wait. Then *keep* the promise – get off the phone and pay attention to the kid.

    It’s not magic, and it won’t work the first time. But if the parents are consistent, the kid learns that s/he will get his/her needs met. The child will also learn from that parent’s example of how to make and keep commitments, and how to be polite and respectful to others, because the parent is being polite and respectful to the child and keeping the commitment that was made.

    Sorry, this got really long, and I didn’t even put in the-correct-way-to-put-a-child-under-age-two-into-a-timeout lecture. In our house, timeouts were a vital part of early-childhood discipline – long since outgrown. But again it wasn’t about punishment, it was about teaching self-control.

  • Let’s Get Real

    Sue, generally, I don’t think I disagree with you, although, as you note, relying on natural consequences is not always practical or desirable. And I would say that is especially true in a classroom setting.

    It has been my experience as an elementary school teacher that students are made aware of rules at the beginning of the school year (sometimes even allowed to help establish them) and made aware of the consequences of not following those rules. For minor infractions, students usually receive warnings first (giving them a chance to correct their behavior) before consequences (usually loss of recess time) are imposed. In the case of serious misconduct, warnings are bypassed, and more severe consequences are imposed.

    In Oakland, elementary teachers use a program called “Second Step” that is designed to help students learn to respect each other and resolve conflicts peacefully. It involves a weekly lesson and brief discussions as needed during the course of the week. It does not require a lot of time and planning. This program, combined with class and school rules and modeling from adults, provides students with a very good idea of how they should behave and treat others. Consequences are not being meted out in a vacuum.

    Most students respond well to this type of policy, especially when you add incentives for following the rules. Breakdowns occur when a student consistently acts out and does not respond to the consequences that are imposed. If Restorative Justice can help students like this transform, I would support its use in those types of cases.

  • Nextset

    Here’s an idea. Why don’t we set up a school with largely male authority figures that we can transfer into fatherless bad boys in need of discipline? An in-school reform school?

  • Sue

    Rhetorical question, right, Nextset?

    Because the answer is that OUSD can’t discriminate on the basis of gender in the hiring or assignments of teachers and other school staff and administration. So, setting up this hypothetical school with largely male authority figures would be illegal.

    Though there may be a germ of an idea here that could be effective. There are times when I’ve found it really useful (as a small woman) to have a larger male ally deal with a situation where I wasn’t being treated with the fairness and respect that was appropriate.