Photo by Jonathan Olivares.
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Students in a classroom pick up their chairs and move them into a circle. As they settle down, the teacher, Jorge López, asks bluntly, “What is sucking the life out of you?” One by one, the students begin sharing their stories.
This type of exercise is an example of a “healing circle,” part of a new discipline practice being implemented at Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School. This past school year, Roosevelt became one of three schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District to begin implementing restorative justice practices, which are meant to replace traditional methods of school discipline.
According to a report last year by the Civil Rights Office of the U.S. Department of Education, students of color traditionally experience a disproportionately high rate of suspensions and expulsions. They are most often suspended for infractions relating to disrespect, defiance and disobedience, according to a recent report from the University of California Los Angeles.
Struggling with low graduation rates district-wide and attempting to engage students rather than suspend them, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) School Board approved the School Climate Bill of Rights in May 2013. It eliminated the “zero tolerance” policy thatimposed automatic punishments for breaking rules, regardless of the circumstances, and ended suspensions for “willful defiance,” defined as any disruptive behavior.
Mónica García, who represents District 2 on the school board, has been a big advocate for restorative justice, which replaces zero tolerance. Garcia has been working alongside students, parents and educators in hopes of “reducing suspensions, increasing attendance, increasing the graduation rates.”
Restorative justice is aimed at keeping kids in school instead of pushing them out and helps to give students tools to resolve problems. Students are taught to resolve their problems by engaging in conversations and understanding the harm they have caused another student or even their community.
Michelle Ferrer began working as a restorative justice coordinator at Roosevelt last year when the school began implementing the new disciplinary practices. Roosevelt began utilizing restorative justice at one of its small schools last year and this year expanded it to the entire school.
Ferrer saysrestorative justice teaches students to “understand that there are consequences” and that they have “the responsibility to make it right.” It addresses discipline issues through the use of practices such as harm circles. A harm circle is made up of the victim, the wrongdoer and a facilitator.
A big part of the practice includes building a task force made up of an administrator, a counselor, teachers, community members and students. Lupe Flores, a cheerleading captain and Roosevelt senior, has worked on task forces and helped organize restorative justice events at the school.
Flores says she sees how restorative justice has benefitted herself and other students. Circles, she says, unite people. “It helps you understand where the [other] person is coming from. It helps you see the similarities and the differences you have with other people,” says Flores.
It also has helped out her cheerleading squad. Flores says one of the first things the team did this year was sit in a circle. She says, “We understood more about where everyone was coming from. You could see the difference on the mats,” she says, “the trust within the girls and with each other.”
Manuel Criollo, a community organizer with the Community Rights Campaign, is a big supporter of restorative justice and has been working to end punitive discipline policies.
“When you ticket a young person for a fight at school, or arrest them, it only festers,” he says. Restorative justice, he says, forces both parties to sit down, apologize and take responsibility for their actions. In this sense, “it teaches broader life lessons.”
Some teachers confused
In a mid-year progress report published in February, “Restorative Justice: In Three Partnership Schools,”a survey of teachers indicated that there was still some confusion about the new discipline practices.
Some staff members said they were confused about who should be addressing student misbehavior and that a clear, campus-specific protocol could help. Others said they believed that restorative justice practices limit their authority and thatthere is a need for a traditional dean of discipline.
Both students and staff commented in the survey that consequences were inconsistent, and many were ineffective. According to the same report, suspensions at Roosevelt weredown slightly from 2.4 percentof all students in the 2012-13 school year to 2.3 percent last year.
While some say restorative justice is a step in the right direction, others believe not enough money is being invested in the practice to make it successful. So far, the district has allotted $600,000 for restorative justice practices, which will pay for five counselors to be placed in different schools. Restorative justice practices are to be implemented in all district schools by 2020.
García says she would like to have a restorative justice coordinator at every campus. “That is absolutely a goal,” she says, “but we are nowhere near able to pay for that right now.”