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Alternative to traditional punishment models aims to empower students to help resolve their own problems

  - Mike MusickWhen a Post-it note containing racist language was passed to an African American student at Lake Oswego Junior High in late January, an outraged community reacted not only to the incident itself but also to the punishment given to the perpetrators.

One of the students was given a one-day suspension, several sources told The Review, while two others were assigned to in-school detentions. That sparked a demand for stiffer penalties from the victim's mother and from others in Lake Oswego, who took to social media to demand that the school district uphold a zero-tolerance policy.

The district as a rule does not comment on disciplinary actions in specific incidents. But in official statements immediately following the episode at LOJ and in the weeks since, district officials have said they are moving away from purely punitive measures and toward the use of "restorative justice strategies" in dealing with hate speech, bullying, harassment "or any other type of behavior that makes students and parents feel unwelcome in our schools."

"Our work as educators is to bring together the best resources, facilitate deep conversations with our students and parents, and engage everyone on the journey to wholeness," said Christine Moses, the district's executive director of communication. "It is a long process to unlearn deep prejudices. It is a long process to change minds. But through our work with peer support groups, adult interventions and courageous conversations, we are addressing this issue head on."

Some community members disagreed with that philosophy, urging expulsion for the students who passed the racist note. But the idea of restorative justice — or "restorative practices" as it is also known — is gaining momentum across the country as school districts search for ways to empower students to resolve conflicts on their own or in small groups.

The idea is to bring affected parties together, help them make amends and then reintegrate students into the classroom community.

Given the racist nature of the latest incident in Lake Oswego, it's interesting to note that the more-traditional, zero-tolerance policies have often resulted in more expulsions or suspensions for students of color, according to several studies. On the other hand, those studies say, districts that have adopted restorative practices have seen drastic reductions in suspension and expulsion rates, and students say they are happier and feel safer.

This week, LOSD Assistant Superintendent Michael Musick — who will become interim superintendent on July 1 when Heather Beck leaves Lake Oswego for a new job in Singapore — told The Review that he is a believer in the value of restorative practices.

Musick said he first became aware of the benefits during his time working in the Denver public school system. In Denver, he said, he worked with much more diverse student populations, including many underserved and at-risk students. But even in Lake Oswego, where the racial makeup of the school district is dramatically different, Musick said he believes the implementation and impact of restorative practices can be the same.

"The first step of restorative practices is recognizing that there is a wrongdoer and there's a victim," Musick said. "It's the wrongdoer's responsibility to restore the relationship, although in issues of harassment, you don't ever put the victim and the wrongdoer together."

The second step, Musick said, is ensuring the accountability of the wrongdoer.

"There's an obligation to the person that did the wrongdoing to fix it," he said. "The third part of that is that it is up to everyone — the community, the school — to support the victim and to help the wrongdoer change."

That's the basis of the restorative practices model that the LOSD has been using and plans to continue using to deal with issues of racial discrimination and other types of bullying, Musick said.

"The baseline for this practice is restoring relationships," he said. "Our goal is for both the victim and the wrongdoer to feel safe in school, to find out why it happened, and to ensure that it never happens again. That's where we're at right now."

Musick acknowledged that the district is still in the early stages of implementing the restorative practices model in all of its 10 schools. But he said he believes that it's an important process to work through.

"Differences make us better," he said. "What I strive for in our buildings is for us all to ask how to learn more about each other. I'm absolutely hopeful. I wouldn't be doing this job if I wasn't hopeful. But until we have conversations about the tough things, like the things that happened at LOJ, we'll never get better."

The school district recently adopted a strategic plan that lists equity, diversity and inclusion as a top priority. But a string of recent events at local schools — including racist graffiti scrawled on bathroom walls and an anti-Semitic photo posted to a cafeteria wall — have caused some in the community to question whether official policies are being put into practice.

One of those community stakeholders, Respond to Racism co-founder Willie Poinsette, met with LOJ Principal Sara Deboy and others in the days following the Jan. 26 incident. She told The Review that she came away from the meeting with unanswered questions and concerns. Specifically, she said, she'd like to know more about the training being implemented by the district to create a more inclusive environment in schools.

"I'm not clear that it's as systemic as it sounds," she said. "I really want to know more about the training, and how much has filtered down from the central office to the classroom."

Musick said that in recent meetings with district principals, he has been focusing on making sure that the transition happens effectively. Several schools already have standing Equity Committees in place, he said, and the remaining schools will launch their teams by the end of the year. Anti-bullying curriculum will be launched in the next couple of weeks.

"'All means all' is not just a motto. It means all students can perform and achieve at high levels," Musick said. "But they should also behave at high levels."

It is imperative, he said, that the district educates students about the power of racial slurs and racist behavior. It must be clear to students that hate speech is not tolerated here.

"We have to make sure that we've taught students our expectations, the difference between right and wrong, and also the right behavior. We're working on that piece, and that's really what restorative practices start with," Musick said. "Adults in the schools also have to be able to identify it when they hear it, and know what to do next. They should not be afraid to have a confrontation about it, and say, 'This is not the right behavior, we don't believe in this.'"

Contact Lake Oswego Review reporter Claire Holley at 503-636-1281 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

TAKING ACTION

Here are some of the steps the Lake Oswego School District says it has taken as part of its effort to support equity, diversity and inclusion:

July 2017-present: National Equity Project training for administrators and all central office staff every quarter;

November 2017: School Board adopted a three-year strategic plan that lists equity, diversity and inclusion as the top priority;

January 2018: District Equity Team launched. In addition, an Equity Committee will soon be launched at the board level and an equity director will be hired in the next couple of months. Several schools already have standing Equity Committees; the remaining schools will launch their teams by the end of the year. "Partners Against Hate" and "Teaching Tolerance" curriculum will be launched in the next couple of weeks;

Feb. 8: Assemblies on inclusion were held for all students at Lake Oswego Junior High, led by Coaching Peace founder Diana Cutaia and featuring three community members who told their own stories about how racism and discrimination has affected them personally. In-class lessons about bullying followed the assemblies;

Feb. 9: Assistant Superintendent Michael Musick met with the district's Coordinating Council, where he talked about ongoing initiatives and restorative practices;

Feb. 13: LOJ held a "Listen and Learn" event for parents on Tuesday night (See story, Page A1);

Feb. 19-22: Donor-funded training for City and school district officials and community members will be held at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, resulting in a communitywide meeting in the spring; and

Feb. 26: School culture will be on the agenda when the LOJ Site Advisory Council meets at 9:30 a.m.

— The Review


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