Special Report
School Climate & Safety

‘Restorative Justice’ Offers Alternative Discipline Approach

By Nirvi Shah — January 04, 2013 2 min read
Timote Vaka, 18, a senior at Ralph J. Bunche High School in Oakland, Calif., is participating in an anger-management program at the behest of the alternative school.
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Timote Vaka was running out of second chances.

When he struck a member of a rival basketball team in October after he misinterpreted his opponent’s light shoulder bump for something more aggressive, he faced losing his spot on the team and being kicked out of Ralph J. Bunche High, an alternative school in Oakland, Calif.

Vaka, 18, was sent to Bunche High after an incident at his previous high school, also in Oakland. He’d been mistakenly accused of cutting class and was taken to an assistant principal’s office. “He was trying to call my Pops,” Vaka says. To stop the call, he ended up hitting the assistant principal.

That got him a ticket to Bunche, a school of last resort for students with discipline issues.

So when Vaka’s aggression emerged again at the basketball game and he faced losing a chance at being in school altogether, Bunche’s “restorative justice” teacher, Eric Butler, stepped in. At Bunche High, he had watched as Vaka pushed his grade point average to a 3.5 from less than 1.0 and put himself on a path to graduate this school year, maybe even with classmates at his previous school.

“He could have easily been suspended,” Butler says, but as for the opposing team, “none of the boys [wanted] him to be suspended.” And the one who was hit? “He needed an apology. He needed to know why.”

One More Chance

So Butler persuaded school administrators to give Vaka just one more chance.

Now, Butler is personally shepherding Vaka’s pledge to improve his behavior using restorative practices, an approach that holds students accountable and gets them to right a wrong.

Butler set up a meeting between the Bunche team and the Island High School in Alameda, Calif., that Vaka’s team played the night he lost his temper.

“We all got into a circle. We mixed up the players [from each team]. We went around talking about what we could have done instead of fighting,” Vaka says. He apologized to his teammates, the student he hit, and all of that student’s teammates. They watched a video of the shoulder bump that set Vaka off, and he realized his mistake.

“I took it the wrong way. I could have walked away,” Vaka says.

Then Butler required Vaka to take anger-management classes. The plan to repair harm Vaka has done included an in-person meeting with his parents. They discussed what happened at the basketball game, along with Vaka’s departures from campus to smoke, and what Vaka is doing to make that right and keep his place at Bunche.

“A lot of people think restorative is a quick fix. Sometimes it is,” Butler says. “More often, it’s not.”

Vaka says that had he been expelled from Bunche, “I wouldn’t be in school at all.”

See Also

Read a related Quality Counts story: Discipline Policies Shift With Views on What Works

Nor would he be addressing underlying anger and impulse issues, Butler says. Using a restorative-justice approach “left us with an opportunity to connect him with resources he otherwise would not have been connected to. We are being very intentional about the conversation,” he says.

And the anger-management classes and meeting with the opposing team already are having an effect, Vaka says.

“Before this happened, I wouldn’t think about my decision. When the incident happened, I wasn’t thinking before I hit the guy, the player,” but now, he says, it’s far more likely he would take a moment to assess the situation before acting.

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.

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