On an unassuming building on Los Angeles’ Slauson Avenue, a signboard reads Islah Academy. Inside is a celebration of the students’ Muslim and Black identities. Posters of Nipsey Hussle, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali decorate the walls; shelves are stocked with books featuring Black lead characters. Sneakers of varying sizes are neatly arranged around the prayer room, where students sit cross-legged alongside community members to listen to the school’s founder, Imam Jihad Saafir, deliver the weekly Friday sermon.
“Race is a prominent construct here in America, we cannot separate ourselves from our race. And so we go in there with a religio-racial identity,” says Saafir, executive director of the nonprofit Islah LA.
Islah LA is an inner-city community center founded by Black Muslims to serve the South Los Angeles area. Founded in 2013, it does so through a food pantry, family counseling, four homes dedicated to providing transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness, and safe-place programming for families. Under that umbrella is Islah Academy, a pre-kindergarten through 8th-grade school that seeks to operate outside of the school-to-prison pipeline.
Zero-tolerance policies in U.S. schools, where students were expelled or suspended and referred to law enforcement, gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s because of harsh legislation such as California’s Three Strikes law, which imposed a life sentence for even minor crimes for repeat offenders. Punitive policies continued in spite of studies showing that a student who is suspended is less likely to finish school and is more likely to be in prison by their 20s. Data shows that such policies disproportionately affected Black and Brown students.
While California has sought to reverse these policies in recent years, the effects are still felt. Black individuals account for 6%of California’s population – but 28% of the state’s prison population.
In 2012, when Islah was just an idea, Saafir says the community was “plagued by the absence of our young people” when they reached high school. Many, he says, would become embroiled in the culture of gang activity or end up in prison.
Founded on the principles of restorative justice in 2013, Saafir says Islah Academy is a safe haven from the ills that often exist in the inner city and the damage wrought by the school-to-prison pipeline.
“There were a number of educators in our community who were like, ‘There has to be an alternative to public school,’” recalls Azizah Ali, principal and one of the founding members of Islah Academy. A former public school teacher herself, she says there were three main issues the founders hoped to combat at Islah: students’ safety, kids feeling seen and represented, and youth holding on to their faith.
“We wanted something that was really restorative, and not punitive,” Ali says.
Garland Bush, the director of student affairs as well as a founding member, says that’s not just a theoretical commitment: students and teachers live out these principles in the classroom and school grounds. If there was an incident on the playground, for example, instead of slapping the student with a suspension and keeping that child from receiving an education, Islah’s entire school community comes together in a restorative justice circle.
“We allow the students to talk about their feelings of the situation and talk about how and where it stemmed from, taking into consideration what that child is going through in their home life, the trauma they have,” she says. “And really asking the community, what do you need from this student to make the community whole again.”
The name Islah, in Arabic, means to revive, renew and restore. Students debate what harm was done to the school community and community at large, how they can repair the relationship and what accountability requires. The students themselves create the consequences.
“We had one student who was using really foul language towards the young ladies … and the school community said, you should get up after jummah [prayer services] and do a speech about respecting women,” Ali recalls. At first the student was embarrassed and resisted, before eventually holding himself accountable and doing it. He received a standing ovation after his speech.
“He got so much support,” Ali says.
Instead of punishing the student, Bush finds this model offers a “platform for deeper learning, it gives a platform for better communication.”
These restorative justice circles are not just used for disciplinary reasons or to address behavioral issues, they also serve as a platform to have deeper discussions about what happens in society. When rapper Nipsey Hussle was murdered down the street from Islah in 2019, the school came together to discuss what had happened.
“There was a student, a sweet little boy, who brought a knife. He was like, ‘to protect myself.’ They didn’t feel safe after that happened,” Ali says. The school brought in a trauma specialist to help the students process their feelings.
The school, Saafir says, is “tailor-made for the community.” Topics like incarceration also come up in these circles because some students have relatives in prison. One student, he recalls, came up to the teachers and asked them to write a character reference letter for his incarcerated father in the hopes that his father would be released early.
“He carries that burden here with him, so we address him on that particular topic,” Saafir says.
Another student brought up how he was upset with his father because he doesn’t pay child support. One classmate replied, “That’s nothing new,” while another student added, “My father doesn’t either.”
Saafir used that discussion to speak about forgiveness and understanding. He redirected the children to consider whether their fathers might be plagued by some trauma that prevents them from being present in their children’s lives.
“We unpack it, we talk about it and we move forward,” Bush says.
The school-to-prison pipeline is a gendered issue. Between 2016 and 2017, 3.6%of students in the U.S. were suspended from school. But the rate for Black boys was a whopping 12.8%. At the early childhood level (kindergarten through grade 3), Black boys are 5.6 times more likely to be suspended.
Islah Academy, as Ali is proud to note, offers an alternative to “a lot of boys, Black boys.” Parents say they prefer Islah because their children are not criminalized just because teachers did not understand them or their attitudes.
“That whole criminalizing attitude is because either you want to control this child a certain way, or your ego is hurt, and you can’t deal with it,” Bush says. “Or you’re just in a mold of adultifying these children.”
At Islah, she continues, as educators, teachers strive to be transformative mentors – “someone who can support them on their own ideas of who they want to be.” That even includes disrupting many of the systems of traditional American schools: no school bells, colorful uniforms in a range of styles from which students can choose.
And the students have responded in kind to this restorative justice model.
“It’s just amazing to see where they’re at now, to see how far they’ve come,,” Bush says of students who have graduated from Islah. “We have students that are in college now.” Some alumni, she says, call Islah their “home” and “family.”
Still, Islah students themselves can’t see the impact of Islah’s model on their lives. “But we know it, comparing them with our generation,” Saafir notes.
When Saafir was a 12-year-old boy, one day at Eid prayers he was standing with a group of young men. The men went around the circle, rattling off the names of the gangs they had become affiliated with. “One from Fruit Town, one from 60’s Neighborhood Crips, one from Pirus,” he says.
More recently, one of his childhood friends ended up in prison for murder. Another was killed.
“If there wasn’t an Islah Academy, I can see that cycle continuing,” Saafir says somberly.
Yusra Farzan is a multimedia journalist who reports on social issues as they intersect with race and religion. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Insider, NPR, Teen Vogue, PBS SoCal KCET, Gulf News and LankaWoman magazine. She holds a master's degree from the University of Southern California.