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Restorative justice comes to Sonoma schools

The days of zero tolerance in schools are all but over. Restorative justice is the hot new buzz word in school discipline and it is coming to a school near you.

Restorative justice centers around interventions to help resolve conflicts before they turn into bigger issues. For example, if two students get in a fight on the school playground, the students involved as well as a handful of peers, parents, teachers and administrators participate in a “restorative circle” to get to the heart of the problem, make amends and repair the harm.

The non-punitive practice is gaining popularity nationwide because schools adopting the practice report dramatic reductions in suspension and expulsion rates, and students say they are happier and feel safer. “Research shows that restorative justice programs can strengthen campus communities, prevent bullying and reduce student conflict overall,” said Sonoma schools superintendent Louann Carlomagno.

School board trustee Daniel Gustafson attended an early-stages training session and came away intrigued. “What’s compelling to me is the restorative justice definition of consequences. Rather than separation and punishment with accompanying shame and resentment, it’s about kids finding out directly from someone they have wronged about the results of their actions. And that process can lead to insight, compassion, and change. This seems to fit in seamlessly with the current conversation about learning from mistakes and failures.”

Local schools will dip their toes in the water in the coming weeks because Sonoma Valley participated in a successful $900,000 grant request to launch a restorative justice program through the Santa Rosa-based non-profit Restorative Resources. For the next four years, Sonoma Valley and five other local school districts will each identify 70 or so fifth and sixth grade students to participate in restorative justice-based programming.

In her announcement last week about the grant award, Restorative Resources president Susan Kinder said that the six districts were chosen because each has students who have experienced discipline incidents significant enough to require parental/guardian conferences with school officials and are perceived to be at risk for further infractions.

The other districts participating are: Cotati-Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Roseland, Windsor, and Wright School Districts. Joining in as partners in the program are senior officers from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and the police departments of Rohnert Park, Sonoma and Santa Rosa.

At this time, the local plan is for Restorative Resources to provide 40 one-hour-per-week, seven-week long “accountability circles” for small groups of selected Sonoma Valley fifth and sixth graders. During these circles, students develop strategies for taking responsibility for anti-social behavior and examine harms they may have caused in their classrooms and homes, with the goal of becoming positive, engaged members of their school communities. Students will also have the opportunity to participate in restorative conferences where they face those they have harmed and begin to repair those broken relationships.

The notion of restorative justice is both very new and very old. The concept is borrowed in large part from African and Navajo tribal circles, where group solidarity takes the place of force and coercion. The modern interpretation centers around deep discussions, honest dialogue, reconciliation and repairing harm.

Neighboring Santa Rosa city schools are already on board and pleased with the success of the program thus far. In 2013, Santa Rosa learned it had the fourth highest rate of suspensions of any district in the state. The district was eager to find a different approach and it committed to spending $125,000 on a pilot to introduce restorative justice practices in one middle school and one high school.

After just one year, suspensions were down more than 60 percent in those schools. Santa Rosa school board president Bill Carle said, “The impact of restorative justice on Santa Rosa schools has been astounding.” Soon thereafter, an additional $160,000 in Santa Rosa bond funding was approved to expand the program.

Student services director Nikarre Redkoff said while Sonoma Valley’s program is focused only on around 60 fifth and sixth graders right now, a pilot at Creekside High School is possible for later this year, and that Sonoma Valley High has already made philosophically-aligned changes to its discipline policies. “The high school has been looking into alternative approaches to school discipline for a while now, whether or not they are formally under the label of restorative justice,” she said.

While the hands-on approach of a truly restorative culture is expensive, as Kinder explained in an op-ed piece last year, “There’s much more to this than numbers and dollars. It’s about a community embracing its own children instead of pushing them away. It’s about trying to fix problems instead of rushing to punish. Its about trying to break the schools-to-prison pipeline – a well-documented downward spiral where kids who are repeatedly suspended and expelled early in their school careers can often wind up in juvenile hall and prison down the road.”

Kinder hopes to eventually launch restorative justice programs across all schools in Sonoma County.

Community members who are interested in becoming a restorative justice volunteer are invited to take an introductory class at Restorative Resources in Santa Rosa.

Sign up at restorativeresources.org/volunteer.html.