Restorative Justice offers Richmond High students alternatives to suspension

on December 13, 2014

Sofia Paredes, a senior at Richmond High School, has always been an outspoken student, but exercising her freedom of speech hasn’t always been received in the way she hoped.

“I had trouble communicating and being patient with my teacher,” Paredes said. “Participating in RJ allowed the problem to be fixed before it escalated and maybe put me in real trouble.”

“RJ” is the nickname given to Restorative Justice, an in-school program Paredes participated in with her teacher this year. By sitting down and discussing why she was acting out in class, and listening to her teacher’s point of view, she was able to avoid a potential detention or suspension for bad behavior. Since the experience, both she and her teacher are communicating better, and Sofia has improved her grades.

Restorative Justice is an approach to conflict resolution designed to lower rates suspension and detentions in schools, and minimize disruptions to learning.

Students sent to the principal for detention or suspension are given a referral to participate in RJ instead. Some schools now use RJ preventatively, when teachers sense a conflict is about to occur.

Restorative Justice asks a simple question. Can common disputes be resolved in a way that prevents escalation, minimizes the disruption of academic progress, and leaves students and teachers feeling lifted up and not put down? RJ looks at the underlying causes of behavioral issues rather than attempting to solve them through repeated punishment. RJ is not new, and has been used with varying levels of success in schools across the country.

Here in Richmond it is showing signs of success. At Richmond High School, the rate of suspensions and detentions has fallen significantly since the inception of RJ in 2009. In the 2010-2011 school year, Richmond High had a suspension rate of 61%. The rate was 23% during the 2012-2013 school year. Although there were likely other causes of the drop in suspensions, RJ certainly played an important role.

Last year the school made it a requirement that all teachers get training in RJ.

Ann Cummings, a lawyer, is a new teacher at Richmond High. In addition to teaching social justice in the school’s Law Academy, she was selected to be the RJ Coordinator.

Cummings has plenty of experience; she previously set up six RJ programs at schools in Marin County. She explained that RJ promotes a strategy of respect, personal responsibility, and relationship building rather than suspension for defiance related issues.

A key piece of RJ is peer involvement. A RJ Student Council heads the proceedings. Council members are all volunteers and undergo a month and a half of training. The training is designed to teach students about various RJ methods, including communication techniques and practice in scenarios before having real cases. There are seven students on the council.

“I got involved because suspension only addresses what happened but it never really addresses why it happened and what can be done to prevent it,” said Collin Edmonds, an RJ council member. “I wanted to change how the whole system works.”

The RJ council meets weekly, starting on Fridays when referrals are received from the assistant principal. The council then asks the student if he or she would like to go forth with RJ instead of detention or suspension. The majority of students choose RJ.

There are two methods of RJ that students can choose, the circle or peer court format.

The circle is considered more intimate and used for misunderstandings usually between a teacher and a student. Members from the RJ council preside over the circle. Peer court consists of an offending student who is the respondent, a jury made up of students, a facilitator who is either a teacher or council member, and an RJ council member serving as judge.

Edmonds said that the court method focuses on helping the student realize what they did wrong rather than pointing fingers. It is less about deciding if the person is guilty and more about looking at what was done and how it could’ve been prevented.

It is up to the council to decide which method is best depending on the offense. Typical cases they’ve seen this year involve class misconduct such as: disrespecting substitutes, cell phone usage, leaving class without permission and throwing objects.

William McGee, assistant principal at Richmond High, said the goal is not to suspend but to get a student to learn from whatever bad decision they made so that they don’t do it again.

“Let’s say a student steals someone’s bike,” McGee said. “Them reflecting about it, having to do community service or looking the person in the eye who they stole from is a lot more powerful than me just suspending them for stealing the bike.”

This philosophy is why many educators believe RJ is a good tool for more schools to adopt.

DeAnza High School started the program this year. The district wrote in its recent fall newsletter that the program had decreased suspensions by as much as 71% in some schools.

The California Department of Education reported a statewide decline in student suspensions of about 14% between the 2011-12 and 2012-13 school year.

In a news release, Tom Torlakson, the State Superintendent, attributed this decrease to “more schools and districts putting into place measures designed to keep young people in the classroom and learning.”

RJ serves as just one example of such a measure and is why many educators believe it is a step in the right direction, particularly in places where students of color disproportionately receive suspensions and detentions.

“If all schools in California implemented RJ with fidelity then you would see students being in charge of themselves and making better decisions,” McGee said. “You can suspend, suspend, suspend but does that really fix the problem.”

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