Something had to be done.
According to a study by a team of Harvard University researchers, the San Diego Unified School District’s policies on discipline were not only flawed, but also unfair. Students of color were suspended or expelled at highly disproportionate rates, and parents complained that suspensions were doing little more than contributing to their children falling behind in their studies.
San Diego Unified last year embarked on a pilot Restorative Justice project at several campuses, including Hoover and Crawford high schools in City Heights, to focus more on facilitation and peer mediation practices to resolve disciplinary issues.
Suspensions have plummeted. Behavior has improved. And leading the charge is Crawford, which is in a league of its own with a teen court, peer mediation program and restorative circles – all led by students who undergo extensive training at the Crawford Educational Complex’s School of Law and Business.
“What they are doing is impressive,” said Ciria Brewer, Dean of Students at Hoover High School. “It’s something we’d like to replicate.
On June 3, Crawford students led an in-depth Restorative Justice workshop at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice at the University of San Diego to educate nearly 100 district teachers, staff members and administrators, as well as student leaders, on how to implement student-led restorative practices at their respective high schools.
“The point of restorative justice is to try to improve the person, make the offender own up to what they did, acknowledge the problem, and make things whole again,” said Alan Obregon, a senior who oversees the Crawford program. “Getting suspended doesn’t really do anything except set a person back on his assignments. It doesn’t improve a person’s behavior.”
Obregon speaks from experience. He was suspended several times while in middle school.
“Restorative practices and restorative justice improve the school culture,” said school board President Marne Foster. “We’re looking at the harm that was committed and working to see how we can prevent that harm from happening again.”
Not everyone is eligible to take part in such proceedings. Only first-time offenders are allowed the option of having a hearing at Crawford High School’s Teen Court. Retired attorney and School of Law and Business instructor Steve Luttbeg serves as judge, and students serve as jurors. The offender – who must admit his or her guilt before being granted a “trial” – is seeking only an alternative to a more serious punishment, including possible incarceration.
Sentences can range from counseling and tutoring for those involved in fistfights to working on campus beautification projects for those who have marred property with graffiti.
“The cost alone is significantly less than the cost of sending someone to Juvenile Court, and you’re also giving the person a second chance,” said Phuong Pham, a junior who oversees the Crawford High School Teen Court program.
At Hoover High, restorative circles are now the norm when students act out in class. An adult will lead the discussion, asking everyone how a particular incident affected them and allowing them an opportunity to address it. In other cases, students will meet with Brewer or Terry Johnes, who also serves as a Hoover High School dean of students, for a mediation session.
“There’s a reason behind every behavior, and what we’re trying to do is get to that underlying reason so that behavior doesn’t happen again,” Brewer said.
How well is restorative justice working? “The difference from when I walk on campus today compared to when I walked on campus five years ago is night and day,” Luttbeg said. “This is the future of how to build a campus environment that is safe and that is conducive to learning.”
Justine Darling, restorative practices coordinator with the National Conflict Resolution Center’s City Heights office, agrees. Darling is working with the campuses involved in the pilot project.
“Restorative practices are becoming more mainstream as schools look for more creative ways to engage students in correct behavior,” she said. “We want to make sure students stay in school, but are still being held accountable.”
The program seems to be working. The district saw a 57 percent reduction in expulsions during the academic year that just ended. The decrease was even more pronounced at Hoover High School, where restorative justice so far is limited to restorative circles and mediation, both of which are led by administrators and teachers.
Still, the number of suspensions at Hoover has fallen from 310 in 2013-14 to 61 this year, Johnes said.
“We’re not seeing kids being suspended five or six times a year, coming back to school and engaging in the same behavior,” Johnes said. “Kids are still being held accountable for their behavior, but the accountability is changing and their behavior is changing. Staying home and playing Xbox all day is not constructive. Our goal is to keep students in school in an environment that is conducive to learning.”
The old system was blatantly unfair, the study said.
“Beginning at the preschool level, students of color are suspended or expelled at nearly three times the rate of white students,” the Harvard study found. “The discrimination in application persists even once we account for differences in economic status. We now know that this unequal treatment at school meaningfully exacerbates the achievement gap and is often the initiating force in a vicious cycle of discipline, absenteeism, truancy, academic struggle, and eventual dropout.”
Administrators concede not everyone is happy with the shift in policy.
“A lot of parents will say, ‘What are you going to do to them? How are they going to be punished?’ ” Brewer said. “You could do a lot of things, you could mete out a lot of punishments, but it won’t necessarily change someone’s behavior.”