Nicole Stewart is a former Lincoln High vice principal. / Photo by Jamie Scott Lytle

Two San Diegans with ties to Lincoln High School met on Wednesday with U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to discuss the impact of Obama-era discipline policies, which called on schools to reduce racial disparities in suspension and expulsion rates.

Nicole Stewart, a former vice principal at Lincoln, and Eileen Sofa, whose son was the victim of a suspected rape at the school, met with DeVos to help inform her work on a new Federal Commission on School Safety, as the education secretary considers rolling back the federal guidance issued in 2014, the Associated Press reported.

Following that guidance, school districts across the country, including San Diego Unified, softened their approach to discipline, deprioritizing suspensions and adopting a more therapeutic approach to discipline known as “restorative justice.”

Restorative justice focuses more on prevention than punishment. It includes things like mediation and dialogue – to address students’ underlying issues before they act out – and stresses the need for students to build relationships in school and understand the impact of their decisions.

DeVos also met with civil rights advocates who worry that repealing the Obama-era guidance will have a disparate impact on students of color, who are disproportionately expelled and suspended, reported the Huffington Post.

In 2013, the year before San Diego Unified softened its discipline policies, black students in the district represented 10 percent of the student body but made up 25 percent of suspensions and 21 percent of expulsions. They were more than three and half times more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Many believe that increased the chances those students had with becoming involved with the criminal justice system, often called the school-to-prison pipeline.

But since 2014, educators across the country, including some in San Diego Unified, have pushed back against the softened discipline policies, arguing they have led to inconsistent consequences for negative behavior and in some cases have actually made schools more violent.

Stewart was so disillusioned by her experience at Lincoln that in 2016 she left her career altogether. Stewart, who served as a Lincoln vice principal from 2014 to 2016, said she injured her back trying to break up a fight between students in her last year at the school.

“The kids run that school from the opening bell to the closing bell,” Stewart told me last month.

Before the district shifted its approach, principals were required to recommend students for expulsion if they assaulted teachers or staff. But in 2014, the district eliminated “assaults on staff” from its list of zero tolerance policies, and thereafter principals had discretion on whether to recommend students for expulsion.

Discipline records from Lincoln High show that led to wildly different consequences for similar offenses. Since 2012, some students who assaulted staff were later expelled. Others, including a student who ripped a handful of hair from a teacher’s head, only faced a one-day suspension.

And earlier this year, a student who Lincoln administrators caught with a knife on campus was not expelled. Two weeks later, he came to school with a knife and slashed a classmate’s neck.

Had the student brought a knife to school five years ago, the principal would have been required to recommend him for expulsion. But that changed in 2014, when possession of a knife, by itself, became no longer enough to automatically expel a student.

That change is also meaningful to Sofa, who joined Stewart on the trip to D.C. to meet with DeVos.

In 2016, a boy with a long history of violent and sexual offenses brought a box cutter to Lincoln High, which could be considered a dangerous weapon. Administrators did not attempt to expel him, and several months later he confessed to sexually assaulting Sofa’s son, who has special needs, in a bathroom at Lincoln.

Inconsistent consequences for serious conduct like assaulting staff members is behind the calls teachers are making in other school districts for DeVos to rescind the federal guidance.

But there’s an ideological divide over how to proceed. Those who want to keep the Obama-era guidance argue adequate progress has yet to be made on eliminating the gaps between the way white students and students of color are disciplined. Those on the other side argue the policies aren’t working and in some cases are making schools less safe.

A point that’s been largely missed in this debate, however, is that the two sides aren’t mutually exclusive. Restorative justice, when it’s not coupled with sufficient training for staff or resources to address students’ underlying issues, actually can make schools more violent, a senior manager for the San Diego County Office of Education who helps train schools on how to implement restorative practices, told us last week.

That’s what happened in San Diego Unified, which softened discipline policies in 2014, but after stops and starts is now only in year one of a plan to train staff districtwide.

In other words, if the Obama-era policies are ineffective, it’s possible that has as much do with how restorative practices are being implemented as it does with the policies themselves.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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