Le Grand, Merced area high schools using restorative justice for discipline

06/23/2014 9:19 PM

06/23/2014 9:44 PM

It’s all about making things right.

Schools in the Merced Union High School District, Merced County Office of Education and the Le Grand Union High School District are using a restorative justice model to reduce student discipline problems as well as the number of suspensions and expulsions.

Preliminary indications show it’s working.

Educators with these school systems held a daylong workshop at United Way offices in downtown Merced, with help from the California Endowment and the Oakland consulting firm Human Impact Partners. It was the third of four planned meetings.

Donna Alley, superintendent of the Le Grand district, explains restorative justice this way: It has to bring equity or correct injustices that have been done. Misbehaving students must come up with a way to repair damage from fights with others or discipline issues with administrators.

“I really like restorative justice,” Alley said. “It has done some positive things for our kids and has kept them in school. We have found it to be very positive.” The Le Grand district will start its third year with restorative justice this fall.

Tammie Calzadillas, assistant superintendent for educational services with Merced Union , said Buhach Colony High School and Yosemite High School have been the district’s leaders with the restorative justice model.

“Restorative justice is a set of principles and practices put in place to build community and respond to student misconduct, with the goals of repairing harm and restoring relationships between those impacted,” Calzadillas said.

Both the theory and practice of restorative justice emphasize the importance of identifying the harm, involving all stakeholders and establishing accountability – taking steps to repair the harm and address its causes.

Brian L. Mimura, Fresno-based program manager with the California Endowment, said school districts and community representatives have held several meetings to identify the health benefits of reducing suspensions and expulsions by creating a more positive approach to discipline.

“We want to get away from the old school rule of just sending them to the office and suspending them three days,” Mimura said. “That excludes the student from the school system. We are taking an approach that’s more restorative, building relationships between teachers and students. The focus is on having a conversation and dialogue between parties.”

Darren Sylvia, the high school district’s director of student support services, said restorative justice was started last year at Golden Valley, El Capitan, Sequoia and Buhach Colony high schools. Training in restorative justice will expand to Merced, Atwater and Livingston campuses this fall.

Sylvia said the district has seen a significant change in discipline problems and suspensions:a 10 percent to 30 percent drop in referrals and suspensions and nearly a 60 percent drop in expulsions.

The district’s teachers association has embraced the program, with teachers participating in training and learning new ways to build relationships with students, Sylvia said.

The district’s discipline committee of administrators, teachers and students wrote procedures to include interventions, or preventive measures, to keep students from making bad choices, he said.

“Being in school is most important,” Sylvia said. “You can’t teach if they’re not in school or fix their behavior if you send them home. There are layers of discipline, and we do more positive behavioral influences versus punitive steps.”

There were 33 fewer suspensions districtwide for the 2013-2014 school year, which ends this month, compared with the previous 12-month period. That’s 1,000 fewer days of suspension, Sylvia said, and it means administrators can focus on instruction rather than deal with discipline issues.

Holly Newlon, assistant superintendent for career and alternative education with the county schools office, said the second year of restorative justice just finished at Valley Community Schools in Merced, Atwater and Los Banos. There are 600 students from sixth through 12th grades at those campuses.

Newlon said moving from traditional discipline to the restorative model takes three to five years. She said MCOE schools need to refine their practices for conflict resolution and mediation.

“We are committed and willing to do the work it takes to get there, to move to a more restorative climate,” Newlon said. “We’re reviewing the progress so far to determine what refinements need to be made.”

Mimura said restorative justice isn’t a program, it’s a shift in culture and philosophy, changing how educators relate to students. He said the process takes time and requires patience and perseverance.

“We just started implementing this a couple years ago,” Mimura said. “It has been shown in other places in the state in challenging environments; it works.”

The process develops a connection between school and students that’s called social cohesion, Mimura said. He said the state Legislature, through Assembly Bill 1729, is requires school districts to offer the restorative process.

In focus groups with young people, students have told administrators that suspensions don’t do any good, he added.

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