A few evenings ago, quickly ascending the stairs to the Paul Robeson building, headquarters of Oakland's school district, I entered a crowded room. The school board was considering an innovative proposal to eliminate disproportionate suspension rates of African-American students in response to the U.S. Office of Civil Rights' investigation on charges of racial discrimination in school discipline.
African-American boys comprise only 17 percent of Oakland public school students, but 42 percent of suspensions.
As a trial attorney litigating civil rights cases, I know how quickly things can go south once adversarial justice gets into play – litigation, zero-sum games and other posturing that is de rigueur.
I know firsthand that adversarial processes damage relationships instead of healing them and create more social conflict than peace.
But as a restorative justice advocate sitting in the spirited and crowded boardroom, what I observed showed we can do things differently. Guided by Superintendent Tony Smith's wisdom, the school district made no excuses, took responsibility, came to the table, and collaboratively crafted a groundbreaking voluntary resolution plan to heal the harm and make it right.
Sounds like restorative justice? You bet – definitely on the restorative end of the continuum.
Reading the plan reveals it's not one of those documents the responsible party perfunctorily signs to get the harmed party out of their hair. Here, the district's commitment to take strategic corrective action shines through.
Calling for implementation of multiple innovative practices, including the African-American male achievement program and restorative justice, it will be implemented in two phases over four years.
Oakland is poised to lead the way for the nation on strategies to eradicate persistent school discipline inequities.
The district has been doing innovative work, particularly since 2010, catalyzed by the superintendent's creation of the African-American Male Achievement Office coupled with passage of Director Hinton Hodge's resolution to adopt restorative justice. After scores of community members, parents and educators spoke, the board unanimously adopted the measure to strong applause.
There are more bright moments. Two newly-elected student school board members were introduced. One, Pierre Salimeri, is a 12th-grader at Ralph Bunche High School where my organization, Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth, has been working.
Vice Principal Lorna Shelton and Restorative Justice coordinator Eric Butler were also in the house. In one year, their work led to a 51 percent reduction in suspensions, 77 percent reduction in violence, and, get this, elimination of disproportionality.
Bunche is leading the way, for the district and possibly for the nation.
All 12th graders graduated, many pulling up from 0.0 to a 3-plus GPA. One ended up as class valedictorian. Another, by the way, an 11th-grader, turned his life around from juvenile justice involvement and failing grades to election this year to the school board seat.
What an evening. Silver linings, win-wins, and bright moments.
Glimmerings of a new justice on the horizon. Justice as healing and justice as right relationship.
Once recovering from befuddlement at the persistence of inequities into the 21st century, I imagine Paul Robeson and Ralph Bunche would have loved the evening, too.
Fania E. Davis is an attorney and co-founder and director of Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth.