kgalb01.jpgKGA members at Long Beach's Building Healthy Communities Every Student Matters Campaign launch in March 2012

Restorative Justice in Southeast Asian Communities of Long Beach

This is part of a series examining Restorative Justice in schools and communities, produced in partnership with the California Endowment.


They shared story after story, experiences of trauma, loss and regret. Yet, embedded within each narrative was a deep longing for reconciliation and the need to feel whole once more. Four years ago, Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) developed the Young Men's Empowerment Program (YMEP) as an apparatus to address the issue facing young Southeast Asian men in the community. As a whole, KGA began as a pilot project consisting of 14 young women, a female-led agency that trained members to develop organizing skills that were sensitive to the cultural and political conditions of the Southeast Asian communities in Long Beach. Overtime, KGA's work came to encompass young men, addressing the struggles to end oppression and discrimination along the lines of gender, class, race, and sexual orientation.

Most participants are second generation children, still reeling from the legacy of the Cambodian genocide. Research conducted by the RAND Institute found, that after 26 years of resettlement, an astonishing 62% of Khmer refugees residing in Long Beach suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) -- the highest level diagnosed amongst any group ever studied, including combat veterans. Symptoms of PTSD include depression, the inability to function or make rational decisions, and a detachment from one's life. Although the young men did not experience the genocide directly, they were living in homes with parents and elders who still carried that trauma with them. That trauma was transmitted. The young men had come to our space seeking opportunities to understand how to cope with the secondhand trauma of watching helplessly, their loved ones deteriorate. The stage was set for us, as we sought collectively for ways to heal as a community.

Our first experience with "circle," one of the critical foundations of Restorative Justice, began as an experiment. We were in search of an alternative to the zero-tolerance discipline policies being practiced in schools, which fractured and punished students, particularly students of color, unfairly. Empirically, we found that these students, who experienced frequent suspensions and expulsions by school administrators, felt less welcomed and valued on school campuses. And in turn became less motivated to attend certain classes or come to school altogether. This essentially was a pushout. We wholeheartedly believed that there had to a be an alternative. And what began as an experiment rapidly became a movement.

In the summer of 2012, through the Building Healthy Communities initiative in Long Beach, our young people embarked on a statewide journey to engage with other youth-led campaigns, aimed at shifting punitive discipline practices. We wanted to know what the alternatives were to suspensions and expulsions. We visited cities like Fresno, San Francisco, Oakland, and Richmond, and found that Restorative Justice was the common thread. All across the state, young people were working in coalition to implement Restorative Justice programs in their communities and schools.

Orientation day during the 2012 Fall Semester for the YMEP program

But why had Restorative Justice taken such a great hold in these communities? In order to understand this we needed to examine more closely the current state of discipline in our schools.

Zero-tolerance policies leave little room for due process, and often times do not provide avenues for students and parents to interject in perceived unfair disciplinary actions. Nor do they allow for teachers and students to learn and grow together, and develop a deeper investment in each other. Instead, students are being removed from the classroom as a result for the slightest infractions: Arriving to class one or two minutes late. Forgetting to bring a textbook to class. Not wearing your student identification card on campus. All common examples of minor offenses which, under zero-tolerance policies, allows and calls for school administrators to remove students from a learning environment.

Additionally, we found that students were being disciplined for matters unrelated to school code. One young lady from Fresno shared a story of being suspended for three days for arriving to school with her head shaved. A young man, a student of Long Beach Unified, was suspended from his English class for not taking "adequate" notes. As a senior he ended up failing that English class, and not walking during his graduation commencement. We heard countless stories similar to these. Young people were losing out on opportunities to graduate and go to college. In fact, it was clear that these practices actually damaged the school-learning environment and were counterproductive to achieving success. The young people, who were most affected by the impact of these harsh disciplinary policies, believed that there needed to be a change. We believed that every student mattered, and that no student was a throw away.

Thus, out of necessity and rather organically, our Every Student Matters Campaign was born. We wanted a common sense, evidence-based approach to the current punitive discipline practices in place. In other words, we wanted to implement and advocate for support services that were proven to not only reduce suspensions and expulsions, but also expand meaningful opportunities for learning and taking responsibility. And through our statewide tour, the practice that emerged as having such an impact was Restorative Justice. At Garfield High School in Los Angeles in one year, after having implemented Restorative Justice, the school reduced its suspension rate from 600 to just 1. At Cole Middle School in Oakland, after having implemented Restorative Justice, there was an 87% reduction in suspensions from 2006 to 2007.

YMEP member Somnon Kann, creating a banner for the Every Student Matters Campaign launch in March 2012

Restorative Justice is a practice grounded in indigenous ceremony of sitting in a circle and allowing for individuals to share and dialogue. The circle represents our eternal connection to one another -- the cycle of the ripples of our actions and the consequences of those actions upon one another -- and the recognition of our equal position to each other in life. While Restorative Justice may be a fairly new term, the practice of coming together in circles is a universal human tradition where communities come together to work out differences, resolve conflict, repair harm, and create justice. When conflict arises Restorative Justice is used to bring together those who are harmed -- "the victim" -- and those who have committed harm -- "the offender" -- to provide a space to repair that harm and holds the offender accountable in a way that allows for the offender to take responsibility and learn.

When young people act out, it is a symptom of a larger issue in their life. Perhaps their parents are struggling to make rent or put food on the table, or they are attempting to cope with violence in their community. These young people need structure, stability, and support -- not suspensions -- to help them cope with the issues in their lives. Restorative Justice aims to bring to light these root issues and provide the necessary support needed for that young person to move forward.

In the Fall of 2012, YMEP began to include Restorative Justice practices in our approach to develop the young men's ability to navigate trauma and cope. Soon afterwards, we witnessed dramatic shifts in the ways the young men viewed themselves and connected with others. On the whole, the young men in YMEP reported, in their annual self assessments, feeling more confident in themselves, developing a deeper sense of brotherhood with their peers, and being more able to deal with challenges when they arose. More strikingly perhaps, were the shifts in definitions and expressions of masculinity. The young men began to express themselves emotionally, in ways that traditional mainstream stereotypes of men did not allow them to previously. They re-examined the ways in which they perpetuated sexism, a system that objectifies women, and made lifelong commitments to dismantle that system. And today, that work continues.

Shifting culture is a tremendous undertaking, whether in our schools or in our communities. Because of the nature of oppression and the deep histories of trauma our communities have endured, our young people are fractured and looking for places and people to support them in becoming whole. Schools are institutions of learning, and a springboard for our future success. And in order to build a vibrant future for California, young people need to have a fair chance to thrive and succeed. Every student should matter; Restorative Justice supports in caring for all students.

About the Author

Seng So is a youth organizer for Khmer Girls in Action's Young Men’s Empowerment Program, serving to empower youth and communities around racial, economic and gender justice.
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