Nurture Racially Just, Relationship-centered, and Restorative School Cultures

Artist: Chamina Elise for <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">CA PFL 2022 Arts Showcase</a>
Artist: Chamina Elise for CA PFL 2022 Arts Showcase

Dismantling Racism & Repairing Institutional Harm to Build Healing & Racially Just School Cultures

Photo Credit: Californians for Justice, Race & Relationship Report, “Dear Racism in Schools Letter” by Trinity Harper
Photo Credit: Californians for Justice, Race & Relationship Report, “Dear Racism in Schools Letter” by Trinity Harper

California’s longstanding history of exclusion and racism birthed an education system rooted in discriminatory resourcing and exclusion of historically marginalized students of color.  As a result, our public school system has shaped the trajectories of generations of young people, families, and educators, often discriminating on the basis of race, socioeconomic status, and geography, among other socially constructed factors.

In order to have justice for Black, Indigenous, Brown, and immigrant students, students with disabilities, low-income students, and other students and families of color across the state, education decision-makers must look to students, families, community members and educators as the architects of a new normal.

Together, students, families, educators, and community members can reckon with the history of exclusion and racism in public education and build a system with a different approach to education, from the classroom to the boardroom, that is rooted in community, mutual support, strength in diversity, and care. We can build from our cultural strengths to ensure every student, family, and educator feels welcomed, respected, and valued as a critical member in their school.

In this section are tools for schools to begin the hard work of confronting legacies of harm to be able to heal and repair with students, families and educators to build racially just school and restorative school cultures that are a cornerstone of community schools.

Learning from Each Other: Centering the Experiences and Expertise of Students and Families

 To disrupt the generational legacy of racism and inequitable schooling, we must honor the experiences and expertise of students and families who have been most impacted. Only through authentic partnership with youth and families can we co-create racially just and relationship-centered schools. Schools have many opportunities to value the lived experience of students and families. For example:

  • Invite youth and families to support and lead listening sessions in schools so that schools can better understand their strengths as well as their needs and engage them in co-designing solutions. For example, a listening session team, even if small, can be the beginning of a shared decision-making team that can support the school with important decisions, such as staffing, programs and services.
  • Students and families can participate with educators in and even lead professional development to build shared understanding and skills. Students and families can support schools and districts by leading professional development in areas where they have expertise.
  • Invest resources and time to build strong relationships with community partners. Oftentimes, community partners have deep rooted relationships with students and families, know their strengths and needs and can help schools and districts to build bridges with them.

“It all begins with the mindset shift that honors the expertise of parents and youth, a mindset where they are honored and respected.” - Rosalyn Green Charles, Black Power Building Director, Building Healthy Communities Monterey County

Here are some stories from community schools that walk the walk of centering the experiences and expertise of students and families:

Cabrillo High School and Long Beach Professional Learning Network (PLN)

Supporting Newcomer Students Through a Community School Model

Reimagining School Safety - Mapping the Movement for Racial Justice, Restorative Cultures, and Police-Free Schools in California

By Alliance for Boys and Men of Color (ABMoC) and California Partnership for the Future of Learning (CA PFL)

Photo Credit: Corleone Ham of the BSS Coalition
Photo Credit: Corleone Ham of the BSS Coalition

"We can't build relationship-centered schools if schools center policing as the way to manage misbehavior. Eliminating school police and the harsh zero-tolerance climates in our schools is the only way we get to community schools." - Dr. David C. Turner III, Senior Advisor for the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, professor of Social Welfare at UCLA

On May 25th, 2020 George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis Police Department. His murder was captured on camera by a 17-year-old Black girl named Darnella Frazier. Frazier’s video, and continuous footage of subsequent police and vigilante murders of Black people like Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Dijon Kizzee, Fred Williams, and many others, sparked one of the largest uprisings for racial justice in world history. In June 2020, two large California school districts (Oakland and Los Angeles Unified) took major steps in the movement to decriminalize students and reimagine school safety. OUSD school police were fully abolished and LAUSD defunded their school police department by 35%. Both of these victories resulted from decades of organizing and power-building, with Black-led organizations like the Black Organizing Project (Oakland) and Students Deserve (Los Angeles) at the forefront. Their efforts have been instrumental in shifting the conversation about school safety and discipline away from punishment and towards restorative practices that prioritize the well-being of students. These victories are a significant step towards creating safe and nurturing school environments where all students can thrive, free from the fear of police brutality and criminalization. The reimagining of school safety through the elimination of school police and deep investment in student mental health & wellness, restorative justice, and community based-safety resources like peacebuilders/violence interventionists is a critical tenet of building racially-just relationship-centered community schools.

Since the year 2000 with the passage of Prop 21, after nearly three decades of continued divestment in public schools and an investment in the criminalization of communities of color, a movement grew to humanize young people and reimagine school and community safety. Local victories such as eliminating ticketing for tardiness in Los Angeles in 2007 to statewide victories such as the passage of Proposition 30 in 2012 have helped to lay the foundation for a transformation of school climate and investments in restorative justice.

Across California, the victories for decriminalizing students and reimagining school safety are gaining momentum as a result of decades of grassroots organizing and advocacy from BIPOC organizations and communities, as well as other groups advocating for social justice. As a brief timeline of events, we would like to outline some significant victories from our network partners at the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color (ABMoC) and the California Partnership for the Future of Learning (CA PFL) to highlight the progress made toward creating safe and inclusive school environments:

Replacing Punitive & Racist Practices with Restorative School Cultures

School Climate Bill of Rights - Los Angeles Unified School District

In the 2011-12 school year, nearly 1 out of every 3 school suspensions in LAUSD were for defiance/disruption. These numbers specifically impacted Black, masculine-identified youth (boys/bois and young men), and students with disabilities. Families also felt that the district took little accountability for disparities in punitive discipline. In response, the Brothers Sons Selves Coalition 1 (BSS- a coalition of community-based organizations across Los Angeles and Long Beach whose mission is to end the criminalization of young bois/boys and men of color) and CADRE crafted the School Climate Bill of Rights (SCBR) which the Board of Education passed in May 2013. The SCBR established the following rights for all LAUSD students:

  • Alternatives to suspensions and interventions consistent with School-Wide Positive Behavior Intervention Supports (SWPBIS)
  • Reducing law enforcement presence and involvement in school disciplinary incidents
  • Banning Disruption/Defiance suspensions so students could not be removed from the classroom for this subjective category
  • Restorative justice in the place of punitive discipline
  • Public access to school discipline data online
  • Appeals to suspensions and SWPBIS implementation complaint processes

Parents, students, and community members have continuously pushed LAUSD to decriminalize the district and improve learning conditions for Black students, students with disabilities, and other vulnerable student populations in the district. The impact of their organizing efforts rippled throughout the state and the nation to create more positive school environments for all students.

OUSD Eliminating Willful Defiance

In 2015, Dignity in Schools Bay-Area (which includes ABMoC partners Black Organizing Project, ACLU Northern California, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice,  The Brotherhood of Elders network, GSA Network, and other organizations) led a campaign to eliminate willful defiance school suspensions for grades K-12, following LA’s model and extending state policy to cover grades 4-12 at the time. In addition to this significant victory, the coalition was also able to win a $2.3 million dollar investment in restorative justice. The coalition also won:

  • The creation of a Safe and Strong Schools Task Force: to guide the expansion of implementation of the African American Manhood Development program and restorative practices that take a culturally based, healing-informed approach to promote community building to all schools.
  • Data Accountability and Transparency: to provide regular data on key discipline data – suspensions, transfers, days lost to suspension – disaggregated by all subgroups to the public.
  • A Community Complaint and Feedback Process: to alert the district if restorative approaches are not effective or available at all school sites.

Statewide Policy to Eliminate willful defiance (AB 420 K-3 and SB 419 K-8)

In 2014, California passed AB 420, which prohibited schools from suspending students in grades K-3 for "disrupting school activities or otherwise willfully defying the valid authority of school personnel." This was a significant step towards reducing the criminalization of young students and prioritizing their education over punishment.

In 2019, California passed SB 419, which expanded AB 420 by prohibiting schools from suspending students in grades 4-8 for willful defiance and eliminating any reference to the term "willful defiance” as a reason for suspension. This was another important step towards reducing the school-to-prison pipeline and promoting restorative practices to address student behavior.

Removing Police From Schools

Oakland George Floyd Resolution (BOP plus Oakland Coalition)

On June 24, 2020, Oakland USD became the first district in California to completely eliminate its school police department. The hard-won victory was the result of nine years of organizing in the Black Organizing Project’s (BOP) Bettering Our School System campaign,  which mobilized a coalition of students, families, community members, and school staff to oppose school police as part of a legacy of mass incarceration and psychological warfare rooted in anti-Black racism.

BOP continues its effort to transform Oakland schools by advocating for the Oakland USD to limit student referrals to all law enforcement agencies. Through the implementation of the historic George Floyd Resolution, BOP has collaborated with Oakland USD to reimagine safety practices and transform school culture to “focus on building an anti-racist and restorative system that creates conditions conducive to learning, especially for Black and Brown students, and students with special needs, who have historically and disproportionately been subjected to racism, exclusion, and criminalizing practices in schools.” In addition to eliminating school police, the campaign led to the reimaging of School Security Officer positions into site-based Culture Keepers who promote school safety through relationship-building, de-escalation tactics, and trauma-informed practices.

Sacramento eliminating School Resource Officer (SRO) Contracts (Black Parallel School Board): Reimagining School Safety Without SROs

In June of 2020, the Black Parallel School Board (in coalition with Blacks Making a Difference, Brown Issues, Sacramento Area Congregations Together, Hmong Innovating Politics, Self-Awareness & Recovery, and Public Advocates), worked to eliminate the contract for school resources officers between the Sacramento City Unified School District and the Sacramento City Police Department. The organizing in Sacramento City Unified continues as the coalition is working to implement this victory and fully transform school culture.

Removing Police Power in Monterey and Santa Cruz Counties

In June 2020, the MILPA Collective and Building Healthy Communities Monterey County (BHC Monterey County) removed police from school districts in Watsonville Pajaro Valley Unified School District, Salinas, Seaside, Monterey, and Soledad. They successfully advocated for three districts in Salinas to refuse federal grant dollars to hire School Resource Officers (2017-2019) and stopped the planned use of drug-sniffing dogs on school grounds in two school districts in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties (2018-2019).

In 2022 Building Healthy Communities Monterey County, with the support of Public Advocates and Organizing Roots, organized parents in Soledad Unified School District to stop a new SRO Contract and to remove LCFF funding from the police contract proposal. As a result of the strong parent organizing effort, the Soledad Unified Board of Directors recommended creating a Safety Committee that includes parents to ensure their voices are reflected in decisions.

LAUSD Defunding school police by 35% (Police-Free LAUSD Coalition)

Photo Credit: Corleone Ham of the BSS Coalition

In the summer of 2020, Students Deserve, Black Lives Matter-LA, and the Brothers Sons Selves coalition called together a massive group of organizations fighting for education justice in LA to continue the marches, protests, and advocacy to defund school police. This group became the Police-Free LAUSD Coalition. The coalition was successful in defunding the LAUSD School Police by 35%, redirecting $25 million dollars to community-based safety alternatives and the Black Student Achievement Plan. Since then, the Police-Free LAUSD Coalition has helped secure an additional $100+ million in annual investments for targeted mental health and wellness, restorative justice, social-emotional development, and academic resources. The coalition continues to plan marches, actions, and advocacy targeting the school board and uplifting youth voices to demand complete divestment from school policing. Other victories include:

  • Removed the remaining school police from being stationed on school campuses.
  • Created and placed School Climate Advocates at all middle and high schools in LAUSD. These campus staff are specially trained in trauma-informed care, violence prevention, de-escalation, and conflict resolution to help cultivate positive school culture.
  • Banned the use of pepper spray or chemical agents on campus.
  • Secured investments for the Black Student Achievement Plan, a collection of equitably targeted resources including psychiatric social workers, restorative justice teachers, academic counselors, wide-ranging community partnerships, African American Studies course, and culturally relevant curriculum development, professional development trainings, academic supports, and interventions.

Eliminating mandatory reporting state-level

The Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, in partnership with ACLU Cal Action, Black Organizing Project, Black Parallel School Board, Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, Disability Rights California, Dolores Huerta Foundation, East Bay Community Law Center, Gente Organizada, Public Counsel, and the Social Justice Learning Institute, are working on legislation to eliminate the California state mandate that requires school personnel to notify law enforcement for minor offenses. This legislation will help local police-free schools efforts by further eliminating policies that foster criminalization in schools.


Keeping Investments in Communities

As a result of ABMoC & CA Partnership for the Future of Learning partner efforts, the California Legislature has updated the California Community Schools Partnership Program statute to prohibit the use of funding for “punitive disciplinary practices or the engagement of campus law enforcement.”

California took a step towards education equity in 2013 by enacting the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), which was a result of 13 years of organizing across the state. LCFF mandated that schools no longer receive equal funding based on enrollment and categorical buckets, but instead that greater financial investment be made in districts and schools that serve vulnerable student populations (i.e low-income students, English language learners, foster youth). Over the past decade, youth, families, and grassroots leaders have been leveraging the engagement and equity requirements of LCFF and the process for developing spending plans called LCAPs to advance restorative school cultures and divest in punitive, law enforcement. This includes efforts of Gente Organizada through their Schools Not Prisons campaign, and the Right to Resources toolkit that grew out of that campaign, co-authored by Public Advocates, ACLU Cal Action, Gente and the Pomona Students Union. Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE) and Inland Congregations United for Change (ICUC) brought a successful LCFF complaint against San Bernardino County that resulted in the stopping of the practice of using funds intended for high-need students for law enforcement spending across the county. They were represented by Public Advocates and the ACLU in this complaint.

Numerous communities across the state have leveraged student data, the LCAP, and other budgeting processes to successfully win investments for Black students and other student populations most impacted by the criminalization of Black and Brown youth in our schools:

Direct investments in Black Students and Highlight Marginalized Populations - A truncated list of district programs

  • Black Student Achievement Plan (Los Angeles Unified School District)
  • African American Male Achievement & African American Female Achievement Programs (Oakland Unified School District)
  • Black Student Achievement Initiative (Compton Unified School District)
  • Student Equity Needs Index (LAUSD)
  • District African American Advisory Council (San Bernardino City Unified School District)
  • Black Student Achievement Initiative (Long Beach Unified School District)
Photo Credit: Joshua Ham of the BSS Coalition
Photo Credit: Joshua Ham of the BSS Coalition

The Power of Restorative Circles to Build Relationships and Heal Conflicts

Artist: Innosanto Nagara for <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">CA PFL 2021 Arts Showcase</a>
Artist: Innosanto Nagara for CA PFL 2021 Arts Showcase

Restorative Circles (Community Building Circles) are a powerful restorative practice that deepen relationships, understand root causes of behavior, focus on healing from trauma, and create more equitable responses to harm. Restorative practices and restorative justice in the United States can trace their roots to varied ancient and indigenous practices from cultures around the world that center on relationship and interconnectedness. Restorative circle processes, in particular, are rooted in the traditional practice of talking circles that various Indigenous and Native people of North America have used for thousands of years.

"In these traditions, Circles are not a “technique” or a set of instructions—they are a way of being, based on deeply held cultural values and relationships.

“During the 1990s, members of First Nations in Canada began teaching the Circle practice to non-Native people. First Nation communities were seeking alternatives to the mass incarceration of their people, which was—and remains—another form of genocide. Returning to Native ways to resolve conflicts and harms required collaboration with non-Native people: lawyers, prosecutors, judges, as well as non-Native neighbors. In the process, non-Native people experienced the Circle process and its power to bring positive transformation for everyone involved. From these interactions, the use of Circles among non-Natives has grown.” From Living Justice Press - The Origins of Circles

When schools practice restorative circles, they are intentionally creating space in the school day for educators and students to share their stories, identities, and opinions in a safe and supportive space. This builds educators’ and students' empathy across differences, which is key to building an anti-racist and inclusive culture of belonging in schools.

In Learning Policy Institute’s Building a Positive School Climate Through Restorative Practices brief, the structure of restorative circles is described as the following:

“These are structured pro­cesses that are guided by a trained facilitator, typically a teacher or other school staff member. A circle can be used for a wide range of purposes, such as building community, helping students connect their experiences to academic content, or welcoming a student back to school ­after an extended absence. As the name implies, restorative circles take place in a circle; ­there is a strong emphasis on the importance of listening, facilitated by using a talking piece. Participants know that they may speak when they are holding the talking piece but that other­wise, their job is to listen."

Restorative practices are rooted in strong relationships. “If schools invest the bulk of their time and energy in building healthy relationships, only a fraction of their time and energy need be spent repairing those relationships when things go wrong. Restorative discipline is rooted in the core assumption that everyone wants to be in good relationships with others and themselves…. Building strong and positive relationships within a school community is key to using restorative discipline when students and adults make mistakes. Establishing a school culture where all members of the community are cared for and respected forms the foundation. The use of restorative discipline is effective only if there is a whole school approach that rests on the shared aspiration to build a caring school community.” Carolyn Boyses-Watson & Kay Pranis, “Restorative Discipline,” Circle Forward: Building a Restorative School Community, at p. 285.

Belong Circle Leader Guide: A Relationship-Building Practice

PICO California

The Belong Circle Leader Guide is a curriculum created by PICO California to support PICO leaders to facilitate community-building Belong Circles. This curriculum has been used in rural, suburban and urban school communities across California. A Belong Circle is an intentional gathering of 10 people who believe in a world of equity and dignity for each of us. The Belong Circle Curriculum takes people on a journey to understand our points of connection, our uniqueness and differences, the structural drivers of exclusion, and the need to take action together, with thousands of other people across California, to make structural changes across our schools, our communities and our state that are rooted in equity and belonging. This curriculum has been used successfully in diverse schools and community spaces from Del Norte to Alameda to Orange County.

Here are the Leader Guides in English and Spanish

Each Belong Circle Has 5 Essential Elements

1) An Opening Exercise that allows people an encounter with themselves and with each other, so we see our points of connection and understand our unique differences.

2) Popular Education that provides analysis about the structural drivers of exclusion in CA and opportunities to create equitable systems and policies in our cities, counties and state.

3) Reflection Questions for the group to discuss what they learned and experienced in the opening exercise and the popular education video.

4) Opportunity for Values-based Action that is integrated with other actions in your region.

5) Fellowship by providing some unstructured time to deepen relationships and trust with your Belong Circle. Snacks or a meal are always welcome.


Case Studies from community schools:

True North Belong Circles

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Advisory Professional Development & Curriculum

Frick United Academy of Language Advisory Program

Youth Alliance’s Restorative Justice Program

  1. At the time of the School Climate Bill of Rights passing, members included: Community Coalition, InnerCity Struggle, Khmer Girls in Action, Brotherhood Crusade, Youth Justice Coalition, Children’s Defense Fund, Labor Community Strategy Center, East LA Weingart YMCA, and Californians for Justice. Current and active partners are InnerCity Struggle, the Weingart East Los Angeles YMCA, Community Coalition, Brotherhood Crusade, the Youth Justice Coalition, Social Justice Learning Institute, Khmer Girls in Action, and California Native Vote Project.]