OUSD’s Restorative Justice: A Portal to Possibility

a collage of nine diverse faces
Some of the Restorative Justice leaders in OUSD.

In this anxious spring of 2021, a time deeply troubled by a range of pandemics from the omnipresent coronavirus, with climate change rapidly evolving into inevitable life-destroying and unfixable breakdown, and interracial hatred and violence careening into a daily panic—perhaps we’ve never been in more desperate need of Restorative Justice (RJ), a program whose objective is to define the harm that is done, to bring the person who is harmed and the person(s) doing the harm together, and to seek resolution.

Restorative Justice has been implemented in many contexts throughout history beginning in the 1970s, growing in part out of the victims’ rights movement. The foundational values of restorative justice, or RJ, and its principles and practices are common to many cultures. “Two peoples have made very specific and profound contributions to practices in the field – the First Nations people of Canada and the U.S., and the Maori of New Zealand… [I]n many ways, restorative justice represents a validation of values and practices that were characteristic of many indigenous groups,” whose traditions were “often discounted and repressed by western colonial powers,” according to Howard Zehr’s book, Changing Lenses–A New Focus for Crime and Justice. In many of society’s current issues, many point to education as the place to address equity, as well as to educate youth. Tellingly, among those who have implemented RJ are victim-offender mediation, family group conferencing, restorative community service, victim panels, and other forms of victim-offender dialogue or neighborhood dispute resolution but  restorative justice also places a heavy emphasis upon systemic change.

In many public school districts, Restorative Justice didn’t start as an initiative from the superintendent. In OUSD, it came in from the community in 2005-2006 where it mostly was implemented by Disciplinary Hearing Panel case managers. One of the case managers, at Cole Middle School, started doing circles with staff and later with students, where they had a lot of success, according to David Yusem, OUSD Restorative Justice Coordinator. Yusem notes that suspensions dropped by 87% and expulsions went to zero.

Restorative Justice was seen as one strategy to address the disparity in suspensions among African American students, including a complaint to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights filed by four Skyline High School students in 2012.

Starting in 2015, the district created RJ facilitator positions at school sites. At the height of Restorative Justice programs in OUSD, Yusem said there were 40 schools and 30 program managers across the district. “[The goal was] to provide lots of Peer RJ Managers, supporting and empowering students.” Due to budget cuts, the program currently has 14 site-based restorative justice managers, “whose job is not to do RJ for the site, but support and teach, and coach the staff and students,” Yusem notes.   

Yusem has been doing conflict resolution for 21 years, beginning at SEEDS Community Resolution Center, where he was the Community Mediation Program Manager, founding their RJ program. He has also started a pilot RJ program in Berkeley Unified, and with the mental health collaborative at the Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center.

RJ circles operate with a multi-tiered framework of 3 support. Tier 1 includes everyone in the community, to build a sense of belonging. Tier 2 focuses on smaller groups, with the objective of repairing harm and re-building relationships that have been broken. Tier 3 is at the individual level with the focus on someone transitioning in or out, or needing additional support.

“RJ has had staying power, even when OUSD eliminated funding, even when other initiatives have come and gone,” Yusem said. He intentionally made it not a curriculum, but a way of life beyond the schoolhouse door.

How RJ Works in OUSD Schools

A man with a grew beard wearing a beret hat smiles
David Yusem.

“In the circle there is a center piece; each person gets to speak and is also listened to,” Museum explained. “There is an opening, guidelines, shared values, speaking or drawing the value, putting it in the center. Circles are mostly about building and maintaining relationships; a teacher might have a circle on a regular basis.” Yusem notes that circles are different from mediations.

In terms of addressing conflicts that arise, Yusem describes Tier 2, which could be a conflict that may or may not have risen to the level of harm. Participation is voluntary, but has led to a decrease in problems and conflicts, and while it doesn’t go down to zero, the students begin to understand the impact of what happens to themselves and to others. “In Tier 3, there would be a student circle; it could be an incarcerated student returning to the same school or a new school; a welcome circle, or for a student who has been suspended, being welcomed back, repairing relationships.” For staff, it might be a teacher who is going out on maternity leave; there may be circles for the outgoing and incoming teachers.

COVID moved RJ to a remote context. “We just took it online; we are doing circles on all three tiers via Zoom, rather than in person. It can be quite powerful. We have had fewer of them, especially around conflict.RJ is a circle process, a way to have a dialogue about anything. There are resources on the OUSD RJ website. After the police killing of Oscar Grant, during ICE acting up, during the Trump administration, we did a lot of circles around those events.”

Below, we highlight some of the Restorative Justice leaders in the district. Read on for the experiences and comments from four school site RJ Program Facilitators/Managers and four student Peer Leaders. Both Program Facilitators and Peer Leaders were asked how they got involved with RJ, what their experiences have been and how and when it has and has not worked, the impact of the COVID transition to remote learning, and how they personally have been impacted by Restorative Justice principles.

Tatiana Chaterji, Coordinator and Facilitator of Restorative Justice at Fremont High 

A woman wears red classes and has her dark hair in a braid for a headshot
Tatiana Chaterji.

Tatiana Chaterji has been part of the Restorative Justice family in Oakland for over a decade, having joined the community of parents and activists pushing OUSD to embrace anti-racist and trauma-informed alternatives to punitive discipline in 2010. Living with a traumatic brain injury from street violence, she has experienced profound healing through RJ processes of dialogue and reconciliation. She is currently partnering with California Transformative Arts to coach teaching artists in her methodology. 

“My class is about RJ, to be able to plant a lot of RJ seeds. As a school-based employee since 2015, my RJ journey started in 2010. I got connected to people who do reconciliation work with the incarcerated. I shared my experience of harm and what justice might have felt like. I experienced such profound healing from doing that work. I recently put together a curriculum called Theater and Embodiment, integrating drama with RJ.

We see a lot of expulsions, homicides, different kinds of criminal activity, and through their leadership, and role models for other kids, they get a sense of belonging. In RJ, we talk a great deal about the school-to prison-pipeline…there are all kinds of leadership programs, but one thing that is unique about RJ is we’re looking at what happens when we punish people. Some of those people are kids who are in frequent conflict. Then a big part of my role, is doing re-entry circles, kids coming back from detention.

Community-building is much harder online, unless they already knew each other. It’s hard to know if they’re making friends. In circle, we’re doing more game-playing; online, students are more likely to respond in the chat. It looks really different. The one positive side, the way we’ve managed to transition circles, shyer students have thrived more in the online environment.

In working with young people, there’s some way, we building an emotional vocabulary, and communication skills, real as opposed to superficial things in our lives. We’re trying to communicate: how do you build empathy?”

Ta-Biti Gibson, RJ Coordinator/Facilitator at Edna Brewer Middle School 

An African American man wearing a small black headpiece smiles in front of a brick wall
Ta-Biti Gibson.

David Ta-Biti Gibson, or Baba Ta-Biti, as many of his students refer to him, has been a practitioner of Restorative Justice Practices for over 25 years beginning with circle gatherings in Northern Louisiana and court-like hearings in Ethiopia. Later, Ta-Biti would borrow from his experiences in his practices with the Oakland Unified School District at Edna Brewer Middle School as the RJ coordinator.

“I am very instrumental on the culture and climate team, which takes care of how the culture of the school and the climate are maintained. Our way at Edna Brewer is RJ practice through circles. I also hold an important role over our Peer RJ Team, comprised of students who I train in RJ practices and who then maintain RJ circles.”

Gibson notes that his Edna Brewer RJ Team may be the largest in the country, maybe the world, with about 100 students. “Our RJ Student Leadership Team is the key to maintaining a welcoming and inclusive school climate.”

“On a weekly basis, I spend a whole day with a teacher, for that day, that class, we do community building all day. All teachers are on the schedule. It helps not only the school culture and climate, it makes everyone feel better about being at the school. Every couple of staff meetings, I will do a Tier 1 circle. It’s an all-school approach with all staff, teachers, custodians.

I’ve been involved in RJ for seven years. But I’ve been involved with the practices that we call RJ for 20 years. I didn’t know when it was happening to me. I learned about it in Ethiopia where I taught school for a while; we did things in a circle, very similar. That’s where I learned that practice. I went into the private sector and came in contact with OUSD with a friend and I realized it was the same kind of idea and practice. You learn that RJ comes from roots from around the world.

A story from outside the school [was] where a couple of students were walking to school and saw something in someone’s yard. A shrine for one of the family’s members overseas, in Iraq, whose son had died in the war. The students were a bit rambunctious, broke some things and stole from the shrine. When the folks came out to confront them, they ran. They had messed it up pretty bad. They ran to school, so the family came to the school and reported it. We found out who the students were. We began our process. Eventually what happened, the family agreed to have a Tier 2 harm circle, the students were there, some of the teachers, it was after school, the parents of the students were in the circle, to the point where the mother of the son overseas gave a photo of the son when he was the age of the student, and they helped rebuild the shrine. The mother was a teacher, one of the reasons allowing her to have such patience.

Middle schoolers are the most productive; they want to make the right decision, they want to be helpful. It’s become an integral part of my life, and I have done it with my own grown children. It’s not a program or a process; it’s a lifestyle, it’s a way of being. It’s not a quick fix. It takes time, it’s relational. By building relationships, the harm can be navigated, if the relationships are built.”

Elijah Flowers, Greenleaf Elementary K-8 Restorative Justice Facilitator

A Black man wearing glasses and with a beard laughs
Elijah Flowers.

Elijah Flowers began at OUSD after teaching at Ralphe Bunche Continuation School, Juvenile Hall and Camp Sweeney. He also has been a practitioner of Social-Emotional Learning in combination with RJ since arriving at OUSD in 2015. Elijah Flowers used to teach math at Juvenile Hall, saying, “I was getting to kids too late. I’d have been fine if I had met them before.” Flowers initially went to school for architecture, got into math and was referred to Greenleaf, initially as the “Dean of Culture,” which became an RJ-esque role with the Dean of Culture teaching the same basic principles.

“When I first got here, there was a family that hated another family. When I arrived I didn’t know the entire story; we were just able to resolve it through conversation, which couldn’t have happened until they trusted me. It took a year. You have to build trust to speak honestly. We were able to get both sets of parents. The original problem was from a coloring project, involving two 3rd graders. You need to get to the roots of conflicts rather than the leaves. The initial disagreement was over a crayon that was not returned; then someone pushed someone at lunch, then the parents are getting into an argument. All these things can happen, but we go back to the crayon incident. Initially they were friends, until the crayon incident.”

COVID has impacted the program, Flowers notes. “It’s just some things you cannot do online. I didn’t feel as effective as I had felt; there are still conversations. I’ve done tech distribution. There are ways to be there without being there. When we Zoom, I can see some of the kids stressed, and sometimes they can’t see me or hear me. In the beginning, the kids were into it. The circles could happen, then that deteriorated, then there was social media drama. So it’s one-on-one check-ins, maybe there’s an exercise or a game. Circles have completely faded, though some teachers have done some circles in our class. All of our staff goes to the trainings with me as much as possible.

Students have expressed that they miss school, virtual learning is hard.

I like my job because it feels organic to my personality. I‘m the peacemaker in the family. It’s important to understand why some things worked for me, helping me to get through the steps. There’s a guideline of questions for Tier 2 conflict and for allowing them to express themselves.”

Carinne Salnave, Restorative Community School Manager at Fruitvale Elementary

a woman with short brown curly hair, cat-eye glasses, and hoop hearings smiles at camera
Carinne Salnave.

Carinne Salnave is a Bay Area native and has been with OUSD for 13 years, beginning as an after school Drama Instructor and Tutor at Edna Brewer Middle School, later becoming an Intervention Specialist in a Special Day Class. She became committed to RJ at her first training and began teaching students how to run circles. In 2015, she became a Restorative Justice Facilitator at Fruitvale Elementary, where she is the Restorative Community School Manager. Salnave has been doing RJ about eight years now.  

“When kids are not willing to talk to each other, in a Tier 2 situation, there might be a fight. One kid doesn’t want to talk to the other kid. It can’t always be happening in the moment. You need to talk to both parties. An ongoing beef since kindergarten, they often can’t let it go, or family drama outside of school, it can be hard to do something about that.

RJ has tremendously changed who I am, in my values, the values of others, thinking about a way to build community.”

Kimberly  Higareda, Restorative Justice Youth Leader at Fremont High, 10th Grade

a teenage girl with a nose piercing and short bob haircut smiles at camera
Kimberly Higareda.

Kim Higareda is committed to being a leader. Her intention is always think about all the people out there who need help, and how she can help one person at a time. She is also a writer, putting her imagination to use. She is a first generation American and part of the Teens on Target/Youth Alive nonprofit organization and continues to work with them as a Youth Leader and helps keep the program running.

“To be part of RJ is more than just talking, it’s having a personal connection. My reason is to be nonviolent. I have struggled with stress, anger issues, depression. This is part of my recovery.

I am part of the leadership class at Fremont High School. It’s kind of intertwined with RJ. As an RJ Youth Leader, we do a lot of things. We make connections between people, we try to understand and do the work that teachers are supposed to do, that parents should also learn, how to talk to your kids, how to talk to them respectfully, how to talk them with care and how to respond and listen with your heart. 

RJ has helped me do that healing, meeting other students struggling with the same thing, making me more aware that other people struggle and have flaws.”

She has seen a variety of changes at Fremont High. “I led more of a community building circle, circles through advisory classes. Kids come in and it is a bit of weirdness; they’re not used to calmness. Kids’ lives are a bit chaotic. I feel like at Fremont High School, you get used to the calmness and the teachers that are super nice to you, they actually talk to you.”                                

Higareda is starting to think ahead of where she wants to be after high school. “I want to go to college. It’s too soon to know what to study. I might want to be a social worker or therapist for teenagers or children.”

Trevor Bozick, Restorative Justice Peer Leader at Edna Brewer Middle School, 8th Grade

A teenage boy with brown hair smiles for camera
Trevor Bozick

Trevor Bozick has been practicing RJ for three years. He is also an artist, piano and soccer player who loves traveling and learning about perspectives beyond his own. Trevor Bozick is RJ Peer Leader at Edna Brewer Middle School. He became an RJ Peer Leader early in attending Edna Brewer. “I partook in circles, but I think other than that, being a strong community member, encouraging others to participate in school and RJ. I should say I try to be a strong community member.

With different scenarios, I would do different things. Every situation is different. If I saw bullying, I would first talk to the person being bullied, talking to kids and making Brewer feel more like a home. I would ask if they wanted or would participate in a circle if they wanted me to intervene or tell an adult; whatever way to solve the problem. RJ is optional. We’re not going to force you to participate, only if both people want to participate in a circle.”

Bozick became an RJ Peer Leader in the beginning of 6th grade. “I was just taking core classes, we had some circles in our class, some of my friends started to join the program and I liked the idea of RJ, first participating, leading circles in 6th grade. I associated RJ with fun, games, laughter, bringing community closer, strengthening relationships. It was a fun thing to partake in. I have seen RJ transform a whole class over time, from students sleeping in class and not wanting to participate in school to connecting with the teacher and enjoying in class.” 

Beyond school, RJ has also informed Bozick’s thinking. “I think a little differently, seeing my place in my world, a change doesn’t have to be gigantic. It’s helped me get a second opinion in my head, helping me empathize in my head, seeing other points of view.”

Bozick is considering both Oakland Tech High School and Bishop O’Dowd for high school. RJ is at Oakland Tech, but ninth graders can’t join the team until tenth grade. If goes to Bishop O’Dowd, he notes that they might have a program but if they don’t, he says, “I might build a program myself.”

Maddie Stein, Restorative Justice Peer Leader at Edna Brewer Middle School, 8th Grade

a girl with strawberry blonde hair in front of a green field
Maddie Stern

Maddie Stein plans to be a lawyer after completing school. She also engages in after-school debate club, stagecraft, and has participated in Girl Scouts since 1st grade, and is now a cadet. Maddie Stern is finishing up her 3rd year at Edna Brewer Middle School and is an RJ Peer Leader.

“We used to be a program. We chose to do RJ during lunch or advisory, but during 7th grade, it became an actual class, an enrichment class. I was always a leader. When I was in 6th grade, the 7th and 8th graders seemed more mature. In 7th and 8th grade, I started being one of the main leaders.

During 6th grade,  a 7th or 8th grader came into 6th grade advisory class. I remember not being very interested, thinking it was a class for students who wanted to focus on academics but then I decided to start. The thing with RJ guidelines is to honor privacy. I have one situation myself. I got in a conflict with a couple of friends, who told [a teacher] and he recommended doing a circle. At first, I felt it would not be enough but I spend so much time doing other people’s circles, it would have been good to have done it. It was a special experience; I handled it better having had the RJ experience, and I handled it with more maturity.

I want to be a lawyer. I want to focus on civil rights, LGBQT rights. I have always wanted to be a lawyer. My grandparents are lawyers. I have a lot of strong opinions about our world today.  RJ has given me insights on that. It has definitely has helped me negotiate conflicts and voicing my emotions. I’ve talked to my mom about it. We sometimes have circles at school for the benefit of families, an evening circle for parents. I want to major in political science in college. In the meantime, I will be active in RJ.”

Zoe Psomas, Restorative Justice Peer Leader at Edna Brewer Middle School Peer Leader, 7th Grade

a girl with a bob haircut and braces smiles
Zoe Psomas.

Zoe Psomas enjoys reading fiction, as well as tending to her four pet chickens, Hoot, Hopper, Barbie and Spot, and also spends time dancing, acting, and writing essays and scripts. Psomas describes RJ as  “a practice where we work with people to build community and eventually solve problems.”   

She started last year, as a 6th grader, when classes were still meeting in person. As remote learning continued into the current school year, she explained that RJ Peer Leaders have been participating in All City Council (ACC), in which all the middle schools in Oakland have representatives who meet about once per month to discuss the issues at hand, so by the end of the year, students conduct a range of workshops on the issues of the world and how they can resolve them. “We use RJ as a tool to convey our ideas, which, for example, could be on climate change.”

Psomas first heard of RJ at Edna Brewer at the end of 5th grade, when she did the school tour. “I just liked the idea of having a leadership role in the school, and RJ seemed like a good way to do that, and when I started seeing other people doing it, it strengthened that thought.”

Psomas notes that while she did not get to have a lot of first-hand Peer Leader experience, “I have heard about times when students after getting in a fight in school, and instead of going to the principal’s office, and they may get to be friends and eat lunch together, and it’s a nice way of resolving the conflict and making it better.” She emphasizes the key goal of building community, saying simply that “people seemed to respect each other.”

The COVID shutdown impacted RJ at Edna Brewer. “We’re still meeting on Zoom but not getting to get together. While there is not the same amount of effectiveness it’s still quite effective.”

Beyond school, Psomas comments that “I would say RJ definitely has kind of helped me empathize more and kind of think about conflict and resolution and how RJ has a part in it.”

As this mostly remote learning 7th grade year comes to a close and the next school year starts to come into view, Psomas said that while she is “I think it will be a good thing to bring with me and teach others about. I kind of want to spread RJ, bring it to other people. I just would say that RJ is an open and welcoming community and a worthwhile thing to pursue and it should be pursued everywhere.”

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Correction: an earlier version of the article misspelled Maddie Stein’s last name.

Author Profile

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”

1 Comment

  1. Wow. Deep dive into a paradigm shifting practice. I hope there will be follow up articles on RJ.

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