Schools use restorative justice to reduce suspensions

Big change is afoot in how public schools in California discipline students.

The Los Angeles Board of Education, for instance, voted in May to make its district the first in the state to ban suspensions for “willful defiance.” The disciplinary term’s legal definition is vague but can include behavior such as refusing to remove a hat in school or cutting class.

After the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado left 15 dead, many schools in the nation adopted “zero tolerance.” The term usually refers to automatic suspension or expulsion for students bringing drugs or participating in violence at school but critics contend the policy has grown to include lesser infractions.

Who is subject to such discipline also has come under fire. Studies have shown that school suspensions are meted out disproportionately to minorities and students with disabilities.

In April, UCLA’s Civil Rights Project released “Out of School and Off Track,” a report that examined disciplinary data from more than 26,000 of the nation’s middle and high schools.

Daniel Losen, director of The Center for Civil Rights Remedies and the study’s co-author, wrote that “one in four black students and one in five students with disabilities and English learners are suspended.” Research has found that a single suspension in 9th grade equates to a 32 percent risk of the student dropping out of school. The figure is double that of a student who never has been suspended.

The troubling numbers have led many educators and administrators to question the use of suspensions.

Javier Martinez is the principal of Le Grand High School in Merced County. “I’m a firm believer that suspensions and expulsions don’t get the results they’re intended to,” he said, adding that taking a student out of the classroom or school doesn’t address the problems that child is facing there or at home.

In place of suspensions many districts are turning to a disciplinary method called restorative justice. Its goal is for the offender to accept responsibility for his or her actions while resolving the problem in a manner that is fair and acceptable to each party.

Ron and Roxanne Claassen are the authors of “Discipline That Restores, Strategies to Create Respect, Cooperation, and Responsibility in the Classroom.” Ron Claassen directed Fresno County’s Victim Offender Reconciliation Program and heads the Restorative Discipline program at Fresno Pacific University. Roxanne Claassen taught grade school for many years at a disadvantaged rural school in Fresno County. The couple also wrote “Making Things Right,” a curriculum in conflict resolution and mediation skills.

Discipline That Restores, or DTR, is based upon handling conflict through cooperation and includes a respect agreement that is posted in the classroom, I-Message/Active Listening and Four Options.

Students and teacher brainstorm and agree on the respect agreement. Roxanne Claassen used four areas as a teacher: student respecting student; student respecting teacher; teacher respecting student; and all respecting equipment and facilities. She noted in the book, “The agreement makes it so I do not have to tell a student I don’t like what they are doing. I ask them to consider whether or not what they are doing is part of our agreement. I ask if they are planning to keep our agreement. It is not just me expecting something. They are invited to expect something, too.”

When conflict arises, those involved discuss the problem using “I” messages rather than the accusatory “you.” They then repeat what the other party said about the conflict until both sides are satisfied that they have been understood.

The Four Options are used when conflict has not been settled because a student refuses to modify behavior after respect agreement reminders and the use of active listening and I messages. The student chooses which option to use.

In option one, a party to the conflict controls the situation or makes the decision as to the resolution. An example is a teacher giving a student a detention.

In option two, an outside party decides the conflict’s outcome, such as a vice principal making a decision for two students.

In option three, a third party might be involved in how the conflict is resolved, but the agreement is reached by the two parties. An example is student mediators helping peers with a conflict.

Option four ends with an agreement between the parties with no outside involvement, for instance, a teacher and student resolving tardy issues.

Students often choose options three or four, noted Ron Claassen. “Everybody is making decisions together. It brings fairness.”

Martinez began using DTR in his school two years ago. When he attended an initial training, he thought the method might be too simplistic. But he decided to give restorative justice a try. Then he asked his secretary to prepare a report on how it was working among the approximately 500 students. When he received the results, “I said, ‘What? What is this?’ ” he recalled with a laugh.

In the 2011-12 school year, Le Grand High had 33 suspensions and 4 expulsions. This year the numbers stand at 15 suspensions, one expulsion. “I am blown away,” Martinez said. As part of the restorative justice program, Martinez put into place a Justice League of 15 students trained in mediation and conflict resolution.

“The important thing,” Martinez said, is that students “own it.” Participants in the conflict “have to understand why did that happen.” Under DTR, each individual tells his or her side and feels heard. This happens even when a teacher is part of the conflict. Martinez said teachers have heard a student’s complaint about them and responded, “ ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that bothered you.’ You understand the kid from their point of view.

“It is quite dramatic,” he continued. “At the end of the day, we really help the students.”

Modesto City Schools, which serves 29,000 students from kindergarten through high school, is using a “several-prong approach” as it moves toward restorative justice, according to Ginger Johnson, associate superintendent for educational services. The district will begin using the restorative justice model next year.

Twenty-three of the district’s 34 schools are engaged in Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, PBIS, a program of the U.S. Department of Education. The other 10 schools will become involved during the next school year. PBIS seeks data-proven techniques to improve academic and behavioral outcomes.

A key aspect to achieving positive behavior is defining expectations, said Mark Herbst, director of the district’s Special Education Plan Area. Students are taught “behavioral norms,” including what might be considered such basics as the importance of attendance, getting to school on time, proper attire and attitude.

Kindergarten through sixth-grade students participate in the Peacebuilders program, which emphasizes treating each other, staff and school equipment with respect.

Sixth- through 12th-graders who have been suspended take part in Success Through Accountability for Youth, or STAY. It’s held in conjunction with the Modesto Police and Probation departments and behavioral health specialists, and students must participate with an adult, Johnson said. Through the program they learn about the ins and outs of the justice system and alcohol and drug abuse.

“Seventy percent are not suspended again,” Johnson said.

None of the techniques aimed at moving from a punitive to a restorative justice system in the schools allow a dangerous situation to go unchecked, nor do they mean students are free to act disrespectfully, educators and experts agreed.

DTR “doesn’t eliminate the need to use authority” if a student refuses to change his or her misbehavior, Ron Claassen said. “It takes them down a different path.” Restorative justice “cuts power struggles,” he continued. “It’s a lot of real positive stuff.”

That’s just what many youngsters involved in conflicts need, Martinez said.

“For a kid with emotional or family troubles, education will be the last thing on their mind. It might be, ‘My parents got divorced and I’m really sad.’ Now we have an alternative.”

Administrators and experts acknowledged that teachers are feeling beleaguered. But dealing with discipline issues wastes a lot of precious classroom time, Ron Claassen said. Sometimes looking at a misbehaving student and nodding at the respect agreement is all that is needed. “We don’t have time not to do this,” Roxanne Claassen said.

“Any time people talk, understanding starts to grow.”

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