Portland Public Schools district headquarters, Portland, Ore., Dec. 15, 2018.

Portland Public Schools has been prioritizing restorative justice as its approach to problem behavior, under a plan rolled out just before the COVID-19 pandemic forced school buildings to close during the 2019-20 school year.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

Some students returning to in-person school this year hadn’t been in a physical classroom since March 2020. They were returning to new schools with new teachers and classmates, all while dealing with the trauma of living through a pandemic.

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Schools had to deal with a multitude of problems — from students struggling with mental health, to academic gaps and behavior problems. In Portland Public Schools, Oregon’s largest school district, officials report increased fights and Title IX reports, among staffing shortages and other problems exacerbated by the pandemic.

At the same time, PPS has been increasing its emphasis on restorative justice, through a plan implemented during the 2019-20 school year — the same year that was upended halfway through by the coronavirus pandemic. Restorative justice practices are used to deal with discipline and conflicts, with a focus on building relationships and community as a way to repair harm, as an alternative to punishment. In PPS, the restorative justice team responds to race-based incidents “as needed.”

PPS officials are seeing an increase this year in requests for the district’s restorative justice services — as schools reach out for help responding to school conflicts through training, prevention efforts, or responsive practices to help build community.

“Last year…we may have had 40 requests for services for the whole school year,” said Char Hutson, the program manager for restorative justice at PPS.

“This year we’re close to 50 or 60 requests just for fall term.”

Despite the increased demand for the district’s restorative justice team, staffing levels and lack of buy-in from administrators have created a patchwork of restorative justice across the district. Some schools have their own restorative justice staff members, others rely on the district’s six-person team, where each member is assigned to several schools.

Restorative justice response at Roseway Heights

At Northeast Portland’s Roseway Heights Middle School, some students staged a walkout in November, demonstrating against what they said was a lack of action from school staff and administrators to rein in a range of behavior problems from sexual harassment to racial slurs to violence. The walkout led to fights outside of the school. After that, school staff received some training on restorative justice.

Daniel Jacobs teaches seventh grade social studies at Roseway Heights.

“We’re doing more introductory lessons on it, and it’s been used… the biggest thing is being able to start helping build classroom community, individually,” Jacobs said.

“But… if we’re talking about really implementing it with fidelity, it’s going to take a lot more time and a lot more resources and a lot more dedication from the district.”

After the walkout, the district brought in additional staff and set aside time for more support for students. The district also mentioned prioritizing racial affinity groups and LGBTQ affinity groups for students to have safe spaces, as well as a goal to increase BIPOC school staff.

But Jacobs said these and other changes come back to the need for more concrete changes at the school and district.

“Saying you’ve implemented something is only the first step, it needs to be systematic, it needs to be implemented with fidelity, and it needs to have an actionable plan that can actually support students,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs also connected these issues to current labor shortages facing PPS and districts around the state and country. When counselors and other non-classroom staff have to step in to substitute or cover for a teacher, those staff are unable to provide support to students who need it.

As school administrators were dealing with the fallout from the walkout and fights, Anh Le was hoping for a response to incidents that happened to another student group months before — at the same school. Le has a third grader at Rose City Park Elementary School but he’s connected to both Rose City Park and Roseway Heights through his role as co-president of Hội Phụ Huynh (HPH), the parent group connected to the district’s Vietnamese Dual-Language Immersion program. That program includes both Rose City Park and Roseway Heights.

That’s how Le learned that in September, Roseway Heights students and staff in the VDLI program were called racial slurs.

“It broke my heart,” Le said of hearing about what happened.

In the last two years, increases in hate incidents directed at Asian-Americans prompted his group and parent groups at Rose City Park and Roseway Heights to have conversations about race and equity, to make sure all students are respected.

“For our Asian kids, we’re fighting another pandemic...some parents are just afraid to send their kids to school,” Le said.

After the racist incident towards the VDLI students, Le said parents weren’t immediately notified. During a meeting with school administrators, Le said he felt administrators were trying to minimize what happened.

Le didn’t feel like administrators had the student take responsibility for their actions, and he said a couple of weeks later, a similar incident happened.

“Things happen, but to me, I see the failure of PPS from the administrative side,” Le said. “You have to have a certain protocol when things happen...to protect our kids because we send our kids to school not to be abused.”

HPH requested a restorative justice process for parents and school administrators, but months later, he said the groups still haven’t met.

“We want them to be accountable for our kids, and at the end of the day, it benefits the whole community, not only our kids, because we are part of the community,” Le said.

A message OPB sent to PPS officials late Thursday, Dec. 23, wasn’t immediately returned.

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Across the district, there are inconsistencies when it comes to restorative justice efforts — both in who does the work and who asks for it.

81 schools, 6 district staff assigned to restorative justice work

Hutson’s district-wide team of six restorative justice specialists cover all 81 schools in the district. They are assigned to cohorts of schools as part of school support teams under the district’s area senior directors.

“Because we have a lot of schools, we have to create this system where it was somewhat manageable, but realistically, it’s not manageable,” Hutson said.

Hutson said there aren’t enough specialists to go around, but that the team is “strategic.”

In addition to those district specialists, a few individual schools have school-based restorative justice coordinators. McDaniel High School, with a student body of more than 1,300 students and one school-based staffer dedicated to restorative justice, is a model school, Hutson said.

“There’s this value that the principal, administration sees in this work,” Hutson said. “Therefore, they were able to manage their budget to hire an RJ coordinator for their school.”

Hutson said last year, there were four other schools that had restorative justice specialists in-house.

With Roseway Heights, Hutson said it was the coordinator at McDaniel High who helped out at the school after the incidents in November. But Hutson said McDaniel’s coordinator was in contact with the district specialist assigned to the school.

“We’re just waiting for the request,” Hutson said. “We’re waiting to be asked to come in.”

That’s another wrinkle in PPS’ restorative justice system — school administrators have to ask for Hutson’s team’s help. That leads to a system where some schools might see more of Hutson’s team than others.

“Some schools will have more RJ support as far as the implementation work, other schools won’t and it’s because although we’re managing all these schools, we’re only responding as requested,” Hutson said.

“So it’s not one of those things where it’s a mandated practice and there’s an actual budget and funding for a school to hire a coordinator.”

Whether an administrator “buys-in” to restorative justice might depend on how long they’ve been in the district. Hutson recalled a 2013 restorative justice training PPS administrators received through Resolutions Northwest. She said administrators who received that training or saw that training practiced in their school may be more likely to want to implement efforts in their school.

“So that buy-in was there,” she said.

But not every current PPS administrator was around then.

For Hutson to manage the number of schools in the district, there are a couple of categories schools fall under — and whether the district’s restorative justice practices are proactive or reactive to a specific incident.

Some schools are focus schools, where the district restorative justice team has dedicated time over one year to provide coaching and training. The team members sit in on school climate meetings and prep the school on how to deploy restorative justice practices. Some schools develop peer-to-peer restorative justice groups and train students in mediation.

“Our focus schools are our schools where we are intentional in implementing RJ,” Hutson said.

“That means we are focusing on prevention.”

The district currently has 10 “focus sites” this year.

The rest of the district is considered “responsive” schools. Those are schools that are expected to request the district’s restorative justice services through a screening tool.

At the same time, difficult school conditions and challenging student behaviors this fall have turned focus schools into responsive schools.

“We still have to be reactive because of what’s happening right now, with COVID, and with distance and hybrid learning, and kids not coming to school, and the trauma from all of this,” Hutson said.

For Rose City Park parent Le, the school could be better at both preparing for and responding to race-based incidents.

“Based on what I’ve seen in my situation, they are not proactive, and they’re doing a horrible job at reactive,” Le said.

Hutson said the influx of requests for services this year has shown her that school officials know the team is available, and that her team has been effective at helping schools overcome conflicts.

But the district’s restorative justice team is spread thin. Hutson would love to see each school have its own restorative justice coordinator, with partnerships between other organizations that work with students. She envisions a system that supports all students, including those who have been pushed out by exclusionary punishment steps, as well as those who want to expand their knowledge of restorative justice.

“So that we’re really shifting from this punitive way of how we respond, to either discipline, or how we respond to our students who do get suspended or expelled and need to reenter…,” Hutson said.

“For me, that vision is not just helping a student be accountable, it’s supporting kids when they are pushed out, and it’s supporting kids who want to come back and do RJ, or take it to post-secondary education and experience.”

Before the pandemic, Hutson said she started working to make her case, and bring her vision to life. But, similar to everything, COVID-19 changed things. So until restorative justice is implemented and mandated district-wide, Hutson is ready for calls from school administrators.

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