Restorative justice, not punishment, helps students at Ralph Bunche High School in Oakland. Stephanie Chuang reports.
When you approach Ralph Bunche High School in West Oakland, you may notice something doesn’t look right – maybe it’s the steel gates at the front entrance, or the police officer standing guard in front of it.
For students, they’re one of the few things that help keep them safe in an environment that could shift to becoming dangerous at any given moment.
“Nowadays, it ain’t no fighting. It’s killings,” said Mercedes Morgan, an 18-year-old senior. “Once you get into a fight, people want to call their family- their momma’s, their uncles, brothers, sisters, whatever. And the whole family gets into it and ends up killing or ‘funking.’ When you see this person in traffic they want to come and shoot this person.”
Classmate Pierre Salmeri agrees that the atmosphere at school can often feel volatile. “Fights around here can escalate very fast, I’d say two seconds. You look at someone funny, and they’re ready. They’re asking, ‘What you looking at?’”
Salmeri said a near-brawl on the school’s basketball court happened quickly with Damon Smith, another 18-year-old senior. Smith said, “It always gets blown out of proportion everything, even altercations over stepping on shoes.”
And these three know what it can all lead to. They’ve all been locked up in juvenile hall for various crimes, from auto theft to assault and battery. Morgan said the latter was what she was behind bars for at just 14 years old. She admitted to using a crowbar on a group of girls she said attacked her first. “I was so mad where I couldn’t stop myself. I started hitting them and hitting them and hitting them.”
Now 18, she admitted she almost got into another heated fight with a female student at her school just months ago. Morgan, Salmeri, and Smith all credit the same man for stopping them from fighting: Eric Butler.
He’s the one who brings students into what he calls “The Circle” for healing. Instead of suspension or even expulsion, Butler works with Betsye Steele, Bunche High School principal, to gather students who are fighting or are on the verge of trouble together in the same room to talk things out. He’s the coordinator for “Restorative Justice for Oakland Youth” (RJOY), a program funded by Measure Y money.
Butler said Bunche is one of three schools in the city using RJOY to solve problems in the classroom and pointed to the numbers in explaining why his school had the most success. He said last year the number of suspensions was cut down by 75 percent. This year, he said with a smile, they’re on track to a near-perfect rate of preventing suspensions altogether.
“They’re still really little kids in big kid bodies and communication is key.”
Wednesday afternoon, teachers listened to both Steele and Butler on what the restorative justice philosophy is, and the best way to apply it in their own classrooms. Steele explained, “We have to work with developing not just students, but the staff. The whole staff.”
Smith agreed this method is a lot healthier and solves a lot more than the conventional method of suspension. He said the fights end up off-campus and more violent. “I know a lot of situations where it’s supposed to happen at a school, get suspended, teachers think they’ve resolved it, but it actually goes down outside of school. It gets way worse.”
And that escalation, the students said, takes something as little as one phone call or text. “They’d probably get a knife or gun to feel extra protected,” said Salmeri. “Maybe even kill someone to prove a point.”
It hits close to home for all three, who said they’ve all had friends and loved ones killed over next to nothing – many of them never made it past the age of 18, including Kiante Campbell, who was supposed to graduate with them from Bunche. Campbell was gunned down at Oakland Art Murmur’s First Friday street festival at the start of February. Butler said at the upcoming First Friday this week, he and his Restorative Justice team will lead a “circle,” inviting those who want to speak to share their thoughts on the growing tensions and violence in Oakland.
The three students out of the couple hundred at Bunche said their battle starts as soon as they wake up. Salmeri described his morning walk. “It’s hard enough for me to get to school just passing through prostitutes and pimps and drug dealers.”
What restorative justice offers them, they concluded, is another weapon in the fight to defy the odds. After all, they each have big plans in store.
Morgan wants to become a pediatrician, inspired by her aunt.
Smith wants to serve in the Navy.
Salmeri wants to become a clinical psychologist or an electrical engineer.
But most of all, he just wants to beat the expectations.
“I just don’t want to be part of the statistics the government set for my community.”