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Karym Sanchez, 23, manages the Accountability Circle Program at Restorative Resources in Santa Rosa. He has also chaired the North Bay Organizing Project's education task force since 2012, which has been vocal and active in support of bringing restorative justice to Santa Rosa City Schools. At the Restorative Resources office, located in a modest office suite near the Empire College campus, Sanchez speaks with a maturity beyond his years about how his own background as an at-risk, troubled youth who was able to turn his life around—something that he credits to concerned teachers and exposure to social justice thinkers like Howard Zinn—informs his work with youth aged 12 to 17 in the accountability circles.
"True justice has to come from a place of love," Sanchez says. "If it comes from a place of vengeance, there's no true healing. There's very little you get out of asking for vengeance. I truly believe it has to come from a place of love, especially for youth, who pick up these subtle messages. When you tell them, 'Get out of here, we don't want you in our schools anymore,' the youth think, 'These schools hate me, my teachers hate me, everybody's out to get me.' But when you remind them, 'No, we love you and we need you here,' it speaks volumes."
The 12-week program ends with a talking circle, or conference, that brings together the offender, community volunteers and those affected by the crime, who together come up with a list of amends. These can take the form of letters, speaking to younger kids about their actions or attending enrichment activities that help them get involved in something outside of themselves.
Restorative justice has been used in the criminal justice system for years, and school districts in Portland, Oakland, Chicago and Denver have already started implementing the process as a way to completely restructure a flawed and often discriminatory discipline system.
It's a challenge that the Santa Rosa City School District is taking seriously.
That's good news, considering the bleak district discipline statistics released last year. In 2011, the district suspended 4,587 students, a number exceeded by only three other large districts in California. More disconcerting, a disproportionate number of the students facing disciplinary action were nonwhite. Out of 256 students expelled in 2011, 127 were Latino, 56 white, 18 black, 14 Native American and 41 multiple-race. The suspensions and expulsions translate not only to hundreds of thousands of lost state funding as students miss days of school, it can lead to even more serious repercussions for individual youth as they get funneled into what's often called the "school-to-prison pipeline."
"From the moment I arrived, the [Santa Rosa City Schools] Board was clear in their belief that there needed to be a fresh look at student behavior and family and community engagement in schools, including but not limited to discipline practices," explains Santa Rosa City Schools superintendent Socorro Shiels via email.
On Sept. 10, before an audience of about a hundred people at a rousing education forum organized by the North Bay Organizing Project, Shiels spoke out in favor of restorative justice. On the heels of her blessing, the Santa Rosa City Schools Board approved funding for a $125,000 pilot restorative justice program in mid-September, to be implemented immediately at Cook Middle School and Elsie Allen High School.
So far, it seems to be working better than anyone could have imagined.
'Far and away, the results have been greater than anybody anticipated," says Santa Rosa City Schools Board of Education president Bill Carle. At a board meeting last November, the data for Cook Middle School showed 82 suspensions between Aug. 14 and Nov. 1 for the 2012–2013 school year, in comparison to only 27 suspensions for the same time period in 2013–2014. That's a 67 percent reduction. At Elsie Allen, the numbers were down 60 percent.
Carle says that normally the board will see 30 to 40 suspensions or expulsions by the first winter session in early December. At the time of our conversation in late 2013, the board had yet to see one disciplinary case come before them, and "that has absolutely never happened," says Carle.
Not only are kids remaining in school and in class, but the savings in average daily attendance (ADA) California state funding in this same period of time has reached $139, 357, according to the same data presented to the school board. The number is a combination of daily ADA and staff savings—for example, the savings when a vice principal doesn't have to take two or three hours out of a day, at $58 per hour, to prepare for and attend disciplinary hearings.
But, Carle says, beyond the savings potential (and that's money that can then be invested in vibrant school programs and materials instead of discipline issues), he's impressed by the life skills being taught to kids that "generally [aren't] in the curriculum," as well as the development of a sense of community that wasn't there before.
"The students are looking at, 'What are the consequences of my actions, and what affect do they have on other people?'" he explains. "I think it has such an emotional long-term value. Intuitively, we are learning that kids will stay in school longer, and there will be a certain level of personal growth that's helpful as well."
Carle does point out that more serious disciplinary cases, such as the incident at Elsie Allen where a student stabbed a teacher with a mechanical pencil, would still go the traditional disciplinary route.
Rob Halverson is research and program development manager with the Sonoma County Probation Department. He and deputy chief probation officer David Koch worked on restorative justice in Multnomah County in Oregon, in the Parkrose School District and then Portland Public Schools, for 10 years before coming to Sonoma County. (Koch spoke in favor of a restorative justice pilot program at a Santa Rosa City school board meeting last spring.) Halverson recalls his time working with the Parkrose School District in Oregon, how the administration was able to avoid 200 missed days of school—a figure that translates directly into budget savings—due to the implementation of restorative practices.
"It's a strategy that gains seat time for kids in school," Halverson tells me. "It keeps them connected and keeps them on track."