A few years ago, San Diego Unified launched pilot program aimed at incorporating a new approach to school discipline, called restorative justice, to the district.

Restorative justice brings someone who has done something wrong together with their victims — to listen, understand, empathize and heal.

When student offenders participate in restorative justice exercises, they may still face punishment, but the school is less likely to suspend or expel them. The students are more likely to stay in school to learn.

It’s well received where it’s implemented.

Except — so far — only a smidgen of San Diego’s district schools receive restorative justice training.

“Right now, not one school is regarded as a true restorative campus running at 100 percent. They are all in the beginning stages,” Mario Valladolid, a counselor in the district’s race/human relations & advocacy department, wrote in an email.

A lack of human and financial resources seems to be behind the slow rollout.

“We are at a turning point right now,” Valladolid said at a recent Board of Education meeting. “We are looking at the (Local Control and Accountability Plan) … we are way under what we should be in order to be a restorative district.”

According to the 2015-2016 LCAP, a blueprint for doling out state money to schools, the district plans to expand restorative justice programs to reach more students. (The expansion plan is in the LCAP more than once – in one section, as a way to close the achievement gap and promote effective and positive behavior support for black and Latino students. In another section, it’s meant to provide a positive school environment, climate and culture through addressing students’ social and emotional needs.)

But Valladolid said the district allocates fewer financial resources to restorative justice programs compared with other school districts in the state.

“We looked at what L.A. Unified has been given in terms of finances, in terms of resources, and Oakland Unified and Santa Ana Unified, and it’s not even close to what we get. We’re getting $800,000 out of the LCAP that’s been allocated for us … and millions of dollars have been given to the other districts, and we’re the second largest district. Our climate should be that we should be the models of the other districts, and we’re not,” Valladolid said.

Just a few months ago, Cindy Marten, San Diego Unified School District superintendent, said she supports using restorative justice in the district and views it as a benefit for students.

She felt so strongly about the program’s value that after a fight between Lincoln High School students and a school police officer in February, she announced the students involved would not be expelled. Instead, she wanted to apply restorative justice, she said — even as the students faced felony assault charges.

“What we’re looking for is how to not repeat, and the data on recidivism is what we’re trying to change,” Marten told KUSI.

Jesus Montana, president of the San Diego Unified Police Officers Association, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that restorative justice exercises weren’t possible for the students because their conversations could be used in court as part of the criminal investigation.

But despite Marten’s stance and the program’s inclusion in the LCAP — restorative justice expansion plans are barely expanding at all.

“A few years back, certain schools had staff trained and [the district] picked certain high schools to be piloted programs, but with only one part-time staff, this only allowed the district to take on one school,” Valladolid said.

In 2014, juniors in Crawford High School’s law academy, which operates a Teen Court, received peer mediation training and learned to be Circle Keepers, or student facilitators of restorative practice exercises, he said.

Then two more schools got on board.

“Hoover and Lincoln were also chosen to expand the restorative justice program and follow the same model as what Crawford is doing, but without peer mediation and Teen Court,” Valladolid said.

While additional San Diego schools receive minimal restorative justice training, several more schools want training — even though it isn’t mandatory, Valladolid said.

“A school chooses to have their students and staff trained,” he said.

“Once principals understand it, they’ll be anxious to have it at their schools,” said Hoover High School’s principal, Joe Austin.

Hoover reduced the amount of student suspensions from 321 in 2013-2014 to only 58 the next school year.

“What we’ve found is two things: It’s a lot more work to be restorative but it changes behaviors,” Austin said on a recent episode of VOSD’s “Good Schools for All” podcast. “So, in the end, we’re a learning institution and we’re helping kids understand the impact of their actions.”

Ciria Brewer, Hoover’s dean of students, described, on the podcast, a recent restorative justice student conference with three students — who experienced an altercation — and their parents. “Everybody had a chance to talk about their perspective, what the impact on them has been and what they need to be able to feel safe and move forward,” Brewer said.

Prior to the restorative justice option, Austin said, “The facts of this event would have included a certain arrest — absolutely an arrest, maybe a recommendation for expulsion.”

The statewide implementation of restorative justice aligns with a state bill signed in 2014 that eliminated so-called willful defiance as a justifiable reason to expel students, and limits its use as a justification for suspensions. Willful defiance was used as a catch-all reason for punishing students – it could be used to describe “pretty much anything that disrupts class, from having a cell phone go off to refusing to do school work,” VOSD’s Mario Koran wrote in 2014.

Before the bill, districts disproportionately used willful defiance to discipline black students and, in some districts, Latino students, too. In 2012-13, black students made up about 6 percent of total state school enrollment, but 19 percent of suspensions for defiance, EdSource reported.

In San Diego Unified, more Latino students were suspended for willful defiance in the 2011-2012 school year than every other student subgroup combined.

“Kids who have been suspended or expelled are two times more likely to drop out and five times more likely to turn to crime,” Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who introduced the bill, told EdSource. “Rather than kicking students out of school, we need to keep young people in school on track to graduate, and out of the criminal justice system.”

Despite limited resources, Valladolid said his department is moving forward as best it can.

“This summer we will be training Lincoln High School students who have already been trained to be Circle Keepers to become ‘Trainers of Trainers’ and train a group of students from Knox Middle School to become Circle Keepers,” he said.

Meanwhile, the district is developing next school year’s LCAP and invites community members and stakeholders to provide feedback in an online survey.

Rachel Evans is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at rachel.evans@voiceofsandiego.org

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.