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New Orleans High School Turbocharges Restorative Justice

Program at the Net school throws teens on the edge a lifeline

NEW ORLEANS — Fights were keeping 17-year-old Symphony Lee out of high school, and off the graduation track.
“Once I lose my temper, that’s it,” says Lee, with characteristic bluntness. Lee spoke from the principal’s office at The Net Charter High School on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard here, a street famous for its ties to legendary black musicians, including Buddy Bolden and Professor Longhair. “In my last school, I was always fighting,” Lee says, seated in a Mardi Gras-purple slipcovered chair in front of a wall painted the same color and wearing her hair pulled up in a careful ponytail poking out from under a baseball cap. Lee’s cycle of anger and school absences had seemed impossible to break. “I’d fight on Monday, get suspended, come back the next Monday, get suspended again. Over and over and over,” Lee says. It was a pattern Net co-founder and executive director Elizabeth Ostberg had seen before. Ostberg, a young, Harvard-trained educator who volunteered to work with youth in crisis, arrived in New Orleans the year after Hurricane Katrina. By the time she opened the Net five years ago, Ostberg had decided that restorative justice, an approach to discipline and conflict resolution that involves talking through conflicts, was the best way to throw some of the city’s most struggling youth a lifeline — not to mention keep them in school.

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