STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We're going to circle up now. That's what they call it at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in Washington, D.C. When a student does something wrong, a small team, including a psychologist and a social worker, sit with him in a circle. They talk about why he did what he did, what he can do to make things right and how he can keep it from happening again. The idea is called restorative justice.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Now, Ron Brown is a brand-new all-boys public high school in D.C. focused on serving young men of color, and it is philosophically opposed to suspending students. Research shows suspensions make troubled students more likely to drop out and even wind up in prison.
INSKEEP: NPR's Cory Turner and Education Week reporter Kavitha Cardoza spent the past year at Ron Brown - hundreds of hours - to see the beginnings of this new school. And they heard a lot, including, as we should warn, some language people may find offensive. Today, they take us inside a circle with life-or-death consequences.
KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: It's November 2016, and something's happened at Ron Brown that set the whole school on edge.
CHARLES CURTIS: It's been on the news, actually - a shooting in Capitol Heights - six people shot, two dead.
CARDOZA: Charles Curtis is the psychologist at Ron Brown and says one of those six people shot was a student here. We're using his initial, D, to protect his privacy.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: It was a weekend dice game gone wrong, and D's lucky. He was hit in the foot. His best friend was shot and killed. Curtis says his team - they're known as the CARE Team - has been talking with D about his choices and the company he keeps.
CURTIS: Your best friend ain't coming home no more. He's dead. And that could've been you, and you got siblings, you have - you know, like, so I think we need to talk some about that. But then we also have to help you navigate the pain that you're experiencing.
TURNER: And they do that, in part, with a restorative circle. Restorative justice is fairly new in many U.S. schools, but it's been around for decades in places like Australia, New Zealand and Brazil. And research on its benefits has been promising.
CARDOZA: D's mother, Tamara (ph), comes to the school for help. She's raising four kids on her own. D's her oldest. And she knows he's in trouble, so she joins her son in a circle along with the CARE Team. Yes, she's grateful D wasn't badly hurt or killed. But she says she's exhausted by his behavior and worries his luck will run out.
TAMARA: I'm really scared for him, really scared. And I just feel like it's nothing else I can do.
TURNER: D slumps beside her. He's not defiant, more sad. Not only was he shot and lost his friend, he's also facing multiple charges of armed robbery and recently spent several nights in lockup. He's 16 years old. Academically, he's struggling, too. But right now everyone knows grades don't matter if D can't stay safe at night.
TAMARA: I cannot hold him in the house. So even if I'm like, you're not leaving out the front door - I can get a bat. I'm not going to hit him with it, but I just want to sit it right there. I'm going to leave this bat right here. If you go out the door, I'm going to hit you. I know I'm not going to hit him. He knows I'm not going to hit him.
So he'll go in the room. He'll lock the door, and he'll go out the window. And what I'm doing? I'm sitting there for hours, scared - can't eat, can't think, can't do nothing because I'm scared to know where he is. I don't know where he is.
CARDOZA: The school's social worker, Roosevelt Cohens, asks D...
ROOSEVELT COHENS: Is it difficult for you to look at Mom?
D: Who wants to see their mother hurt, though? Do you want to look at your mama cry?
CARDOZA: In case you couldn't make it out, D whispers, who wants to see their mother hurt? Do you want to look at your mama cry?
CURTIS: I do not, but I don't want to make my mother cry.
COHENS: Right. That's the whole point. You right, I do not.
CARDOZA: Cohens is the oldest man on the CARE Team by a few decades. When he speaks, the others lean in.
COHENS: Most black males in the school system don't come in contact with not one black male in the school system. You got four black males sitting in this circle right here. Man, how blessed are you?
CARDOZA: He tells D he used to counsel teenagers at the D.C. jail and that he would often stop at the gate before going inside.
COHENS: Seriously - and just look around and be like, man, I don't feel like going the [expletive] in there today. And man, I don't want that for you. You too - you better than that, young brother.
TURNER: At one point, it's D's turn to share his feelings. That's an important part of restorative justice. Everyone has a voice. He's quiet and a little hard to understand. But he says when he was recently locked up, he could feel the world closing in on him.
D: Can't go to sleep till, like, 4 in the morning 'cause I was thinking about everything that was happening. And it was just stressing me out. I felt bad for my mom. I don't want to be gone.
TURNER: He says, I don't want to be gone, especially from his two little brothers and baby sister.
CARDOZA: Shatane Porter, a counselor, tells D he's got to find new friends.
SHATANE PORTER: The streets don't love you back.
COHENS: No, sir.
PORTER: I promise you.
COHENS: No, they don't.
PORTER: If you get locked up, I guarantee you, only person that's coming to put money in your commissary, is coming to make those visits, is your mother.
CARDOZA: Porter knows. His father spent 18 years in prison. And he tells D, it'll change you.
PORTER: If you are an animal before you go in, you're going to be worse. If you're not an animal, either you're going to become an animal or you're going to get devoured up in there.
CARDOZA: D says he'll do anything to stay out of prison.
TURNER: And here's where the circle shifts - very intentionally. It's not just talk. It's about coming up with a plan together. Come to school, the CARE Team tell him, on time, every day.
CARDOZA: Tamara also wants D to agree to a curfew - every weeknight, 8:30. Curtis, the psychologist, fully backs the idea.
CURTIS: You ain't doing [expletive] outside. You ain't doing nothing productive. You're ain't doing nothing legal. But yeah, brother, it's got - 8:30, that's what mom is saying. Like, that's where we at with it. You ain't doing nothing - nothing you should be doing.
TURNER: Dawaine Cosey, also on the CARE Team, adds another request. Well before that curfew each night, check in with your mom.
DAWAINE COSEY: Send her a text. Like, that way, Moms ain't got to be wondering - was those shots...
TAMARA: Every day, they're out there, shooting - every day.
COSEY: This is what I'm talking about. It's little stuff like this that lets Moms know like, all right, I'm aware of Moms's feelings. I love Moms, so let me at least help her out.
TURNER: Curtis, the psychologist, nails it down.
CURTIS: At 7 o'clock every day, can you make a plan to check in with your mom? Mom, good, I love you.
CARDOZA: D's reluctant but agrees. After more than two hours of the circle, everyone goes quiet.
TURNER: Curtis taps his feet and breaks the tension with a laugh. He says what everyone's clearly feeling - I'm tired. In the months that follow, D largely sticks to the plan. But it's also clear, he's got a long road ahead.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: NPR's Cory Turner and Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week. You can hear their full reporting project, which is called "Raising Kings," on the NPR podcast Code Switch.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.