For more information on Restorative Resources, including volunteer and training opportunities, go to www.restorativeresources.org or call 707.542.4244.
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If anyone has a sense of the negative repercussions of suspensions and expulsions on youth, it's the probation department. Halverson says that he and Koch are "really interested in interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline."
"When kids disconnect from school, that's a risk factor that stacks up against them in a number of ways," he explains. "Some of those kids end up involved in the justice system." A restorative approach provides not only an alternative to exclusionary discipline, but also a prevention strategy for keeping kids connected to school while developing a crime-free path to adulthood and out of the justice system, adds Halverson. "If you have a few experiences with being suspended or expelled, your chances of graduating are far less, and that's not good for people developing on a successful trajectory."
For Sam Blechel, 17, this theory has proven to be on point.
'It sounds kind of bad," the Santa Rosa High School junior tells me during a conversation at a local coffee shop, "but if I'd never stolen shoes from Sears, I would not be active in the community today." As he talks, Blechel leans forward urgently, half-stumbling to find the right words to capture the effect restorative justice has had on his life.
Blechel's story could have ended much differently, possibly even with a stint in juvenile hall and probation time. A sophomore at the time, he was caught by store security with a pair of shoes in his backpack, stolen for a friend, he says. A few days later, he received a letter from Restorative Resources. At first, he didn't see the point. Why couldn't he just do some kind of one-day class, something quick that he could knock out, forget about and go back to the way things were?
"At the beginning, I thought it was kind of stupid because they were a bunch of life skills that I already knew about," explains Blechel, tugging at the sleeve of a long-sleeved red shirt worn with faded jeans and black Converse, "but after a while, it really helped me to find myself, to become part of the community, to become more in sync."
"Before, I would see someone walking down the street, and they would be a stranger to me," he says. "Now when I see someone walking down the street, I see them as a neighbor. They're just like me. It helped introduce me to community in a civil and appropriate way."
Blechel, who says that last year he'd spend his afternoons zoning out in front of the television, filling out worksheets and biding time until the next school day, has since developed into an impassioned community organizer. He's the cofounder and president of Students United for Restorative Justice, a small group of engaged students with the ambitious goal of transforming the entire school community. In a well-edited video posted on their active Facebook page, members of the group explain their desire to challenge and change the disciplinary status quo at Santa Rosa High School and beyond.
He admits to recently being stressed-out as he tries to rally his peers and administrators at his school to embrace the idea of restorative justice.
"It would really hurt me not to see it go anywhere," he adds.
Still, he's buoyed by the outcome of a recent meeting with his school principal, which ended with the approval of a restorative justice presentation to the school faculty. At the same time, he worries that teachers will feel that the program "takes power" away from their ability to discipline students.
Fortunately for Blechel and Students for Restorative Justice, the positive results of the pilot program at Cook and Elsie Allen point to the possibility of district-wide implementation of restorative practices. Superintendent Shiels affirms the possibility by email.
"Based on the evidence we have now, about how this has informed discipline decisions at both sites, we feel strongly that this will be a district-wide practice," she writes. The next step will be to provide support for the legion of volunteers, not to mention the comprehensive training in reparative practices for teachers and administrators needed to make it all happen.
It's a shift that could put Santa Rosa on the map for educational innovation, says Zach Whelan, deputy director at Restorative Resources.
"What Santa Rosa is doing is pretty remarkable," he says. "People are blown away at how the schools have really taken this on. When people see the transformation that's happened, this will be one of the beacons in the coming years."
For Zac Good, the lessons learned through restorative justice have been life-altering, and he wants all youth to have access to the tools that helped make such great changes.
"The current system doesn't work, it's flawed," Good says. "It works in some cases, but for the majority of kids, it doesn't. Kids that get in trouble get mad at other people, and they do it again. It's a rabbit hole, and they fall deeper and deeper in."
Good says the point is to catch kids like him early on, to help them see themselves as part of a community, while offering a sense of self-worth. "It's not punishment. It's about fixing the problem," he says.