Archive for August, 2013

Restorative Justice in LA Schools

August 31, 2013

posted today in LA Progressive

In May, when the LAUSD board voted to end the practice of suspending students for “willful defiance,” the blogosphere heated up. Monica Garcia, then board president, was called a moron, and students were referred to as thugs, animals, and savages. Well, guess what, haters? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

Monica Garcia Monica Garcia

On Wednesday, after the school year began with LAUSD rolling out a plan to replace punitive disciplinary measures with the practices of restorative justice, Garcia was applauded by community advocates at a meeting at Loyola Law School. In return, she gave the activists their props: “It’s because of your advocacy,” she said.

The restorative justice initiative was championed by community groups including CADRE, Community Rights Campaign, Dignity in Schools, and Youth Justice Coalition, all committed to keeping kids out of the criminal and juvenile court system and in school. This approach asks, Who was harmed? How can that harm be repaired? What are the needs and responsibilities of the parties? How can the parties be held accountable in a positive and healthy way?

“Here lies the solution to a lot of issues that arise in juvenile justice,” said Donna Groman, and she ought to know. As a Superior Court judge serving at Eastlake Juvenile Court, she has years of experience with the current system. “I see 10-year-olds in court. Why are they there? They are arrested by school police,” and she pointed out, “We are not talking about crimes that endanger the community.” She sees young children who sit in a waiting room with older gang-involved youth. “They are missing school. Their parents are missing work.” She has seen how slowly the court system moves, so that a troubled family may wait months without anyone asking questions or providing services or taking action. In the meantime, children may be denied reentry to school. And school, she believes, is where the response to disciplinary infractions should happen. “School is the center of the community. Court is not the center of the community and the community is where the problems of youth should be addressed.”

Judge Donna Groman Judge Donna Groman

A panel of administrators, teachers, and advocates then spoke of their own experiences in working for change.

Michelle King, Senior Deputy Superintendent, LAUSD, acknowledged there was resistance at first to discipline reform. Teachers complained that if they couldn’t suspend disruptive students, they wouldn’t be able to teach. But teachers now recognize the old ways don’t work and are asking, What can we do differently?

It starts, said Joe Provisor, with council circle. As the director of the Ojai Foundation’s Council in Schools initiative, he has trained more than 2,000 LAUSD teachers in the simple and ancient practice of people sitting in a circle and speaking from the heart. “For most of history, this is how we learned,” he said, “in circles, facing each other,” a model very different from what has become traditional in our education culture, with the teacher being “the sage on the stage.” In a circle, a talking stick is passed around so that everyone has a chance to speak. Everyone listens, attentively and compassionately, without judgment or criticism.

Joe Provisor Joe Provisor

For skeptics who are averse to anything that smells like a therapy session or what they might consider New Age crap, King cites a simple solution. Administrators and teachers should participate in circles before introducing them in the classroom. What she has seen is not only do they gain competence in the technique, but they embrace the idea after they see it’s helped them resolve tensions and communicate and collaborate more effectively with colleagues.

Twenty-five LAUSD schools now regularly use council circles, either incorporated into instruction (so that personal responses and critical thinking can be encouraged, for example, in literature and social studies classes), or with specific times to address school issues allocated on the schedule, or called for when problems in the classroom arise.
Circles are a first step, says Provisor, to creating a web of connectedness, making sure each kid feels seen, listened to, and respected.

Cynthia Castillo, who uses circles in her South LA classroom, reported the response from a student: “You made me feel like I’m human and that you want to know who I am.”

Once the sense of community and of trust is created, successful school-based behavioral interventions become possible. Then the restorative justice model can be used to address disciplinary infractions and for conflict resolution or, as Provisor prefers to say, conflict exploration. It’s not as though students are allowed to get away with anything. They are held accountable for their behavior, but it’s “accountability,” he said, “in a context of care.”

That can make all the difference. “It’s relationships that change children,” said Schoene Mahmood, of the Center for Urban Resilience Restorative Justice Project at Loyola Marymount University. Before coming to LA, Mahmood facilitated conflict resolution and court diversion cases at the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, Maryland, and saw restorative justice successfully resolve problems in some of that city’s toughest (as per “The Wire”) neighborhoods.

Ben Gertner, assistant principal at Roosevelt High School in Boyle Heights, first taught there in 2002 and was dismayed that, for years, students coming late to class were either sent to waste time in a “tardy room” or ended up in court with truancy tickets. Of course it looks easier (even if it’s ineffective) to send a kid to the tardy room than it is to address the real underlying issues. But, he reported, after two teachers attended training offered by the California Conference for Equality & Justice, they spoke up in a meeting of 120 RHS teachers and heartily endorsed the restorative justice approach. One said, “It has transformed my teaching.” Today, there’s a restorative justice coordinator at Roosevelt.

“Restorative justice is not just like this magic solution,” said Castillo. “You have to lay the groundwork with the community building, slowing down and really listening to each other. It’s hard. But we have to stop outsourcing discipline.”

“We have an addiction to over-policing and punitive measures,” said Julio Marquez who was, himself, pushed out of school. Now he’s a graduate of Free LA High School and an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition. We call the police right away, he said, because “people don’t want to believe in this radical notion of just talking to someone.”

He shared a recent experience when he saw an old friend from elementary school who was bleeding and apparently suicidal. Relying on their old relationship and trust, Marquez talked him down and calmed him enough so that he could get him to accept medical care. But when Marquez phoned for the paramedics, the police arrived first. They immediately slapped on the handcuffs. So much for trust.

Marquez prefers to talk about transformative rather than restorative justice. It’s not enough to repair harm and go back to the status quo. He wants to see our society change in profound ways for the better.

All of the panelists believe that by whatever name, this new way of envisioning and implementing justice has ripple effects in the wider community.

When Castillo explains about circles to her students’ parents, they often react with excitement and say they are going to try it at home with their kids. Provisor has trained officers with the South Gate police department who now participate in circles with students at the International Studies Learning Center. He has also trained community members who then sit in on student circles, by their presence letting every young person know there are adults who listen to them and who care.

Face-to-face caring conversations in our classrooms: this is very different from teaching to the test.

For now, the change in our schools is just beginning. Full implementation of restorative justice will take years but LAUSD hopes to be a model for the nation in creating an educational climate in which students feel like valued members of the school community – open to learning academic subjects and life lessons in a way that is nurturing, respectful, and humane.

Through the Eyes of a Storm

August 21, 2013

Rainstorm Press publishes books you’d want to read on rainy, stormy nights — crime, mystery, horror, sci fi. This blog is actually named for my novel, Nobody Wakes Up Pretty, which was published by Rainstorm last year. Now the house has just come out with Through the Eyes of a Storm, an anthology of stories by Rainstorm authors Tammy Maas, Amy Durrant, Tom Knoblauch, Ronald deStefano, Susan Dorsey, Tommy B. Smith, Sakina Murdock, Nate D. Burleigh, Monique Snyman, Robert diBella, Isaiyan Morrison, and me. Revenge, comeuppance, mortality, tempestuous weather and … do you dare?


Turning the Page: Voices from The Francisco Homes

August 14, 2013

Here’s a preview of what’s in the works:

hands only

The Francisco Homes are five neatly kept and well maintained houses in South LA, each with a yard, each offering the first step back to freedom for a total of about 60 formerly incarcerated men. These houses are the only transitional housing specifically intended for men who received life sentences but after decades behind bars were released on parole after the board of prison terms and the governor were convinced they had turned their lives around and posed no threat.

Transitional housing is a stepping-stone. One man told me, “If you go to prison at 15 and come out at 50, in some ways, you’re still 15.” Having never lived free as an adult, there’s a lot to learn – and decades of technology to catch up on. Still, the men are anxious to move on once they’ve regained their footing. They look forward to the privacy of a bedroom that doesn’t have to be shared, an end to squabbles about whose turn it is to clean the toilet. In short, they want to live, at last, like adults.

For the time being, they attend house meetings and classes as well as regular meetings with their parole officers. They pay a low monthly rent, share household chores, grocery shopping and cooking. One man told me how much he loves going to the grocery store because he smiles and greets everyone – neighbors and strangers – in the aisles and at checkout, and these simple human interactions fill him with joy.

In July and August 2013, it was my privilege to offer a series of writing workshops for residents. Everyone was invited at any level of experience, from men who’d been published to men who didn’t think they could write at all. We usually began with some conversation on a topic that might spark ideas. We looked at published poems, essays, and stories. Sometimes we incorporated drawing or improvisation to open up creativity in different ways.

When I first showed up, I had some preconceived ideas. First, I expected the South LA neighborhood to be rough. And yes, it can be. But men sit on porches, talking quietly; children play; people work in their gardens; the ice cream truck passes playing “Turkey in the Straw.” One Francisco Home resident said, with evident delight, “I live on a tree-lined block!”

I figured that just to get out on parole, these men had probably spent many years keeping their heads down and their mouths shut and so I wanted to give them the chance to express themselves freely.

You can meet some of the participants and read some of their work at the Turning the Page website. Or if you live in the Los Angeles area, please join us on Saturday, September 21, 2013 from 3:30-5:00 PM in the Exposition Park/Mary McLeod Bethune Regional Library Community Room, 3900 S. Western Avenue (enter the parking lot from 39th Street) LA 90062. We’ll be giving out free copies of the book we’ve published and there will be a Q&A and discussion.

Jumping Over the Freedom Stick at the July Welcome Home Event

Jumping Over the Freedom Stick at the July Welcome Home Event

Remembering Desi

August 4, 2013

We lost tatiana de la tierra on July 31, 2012. Then came the massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin, and then Newtown and all the senseless gun deaths since. The slaughter in Syria continues, so the death of my sweet cat, Desi, on August 3rd, one year ago, seemed like a strictly personal matter. But while every day’s news fills me with outrage and grief, Desi was my companion for more than 15 years. We were fiercely attached. I’m still mourning and cannot help but write about her.

Desi healthy adult

When Desi decided (insisted) she would come home with me, I knew I loved cats but I honestly didn’t expect this little cat to love me. I’d always wanted to live with a cat and up until March 1997 it had never been possible. Without cat experience, I bought into the stereotype: they were completely independent and narcissistic. When I moved to California, I felt I had a stable place to live and stable income. So, finally.

But I didn’t want Desi. She had been weaned and abandoned way too young. Three weeks old or less. When she scurried up my arm like a little mouse, found my heartbeat and clung on, I was afraid she’d be a special needs kitty and I wouldn’t know how to take care of her. I tried to explain and apologize. I tried to remove her from my body. She shrieked and held on. I tried again. She screamed. So I told her I hoped I would know what to do. I promised her I would always take care of her the best I could and would never abandon her. And she remained as fiercely attached to me, at least emotionally, throughout her life as she was that morning.

desi as kitten
I can’t say how she discovered we were different species. For the first weeks we lived together, she copied everything I did. She grabbed the pen after I used it and pulled it over the page. She hit the buttons on the remote control. She tapped the letters on the computer keyboard and she would only eat at the table and only if I put her food on a plate that looked just like mine and her water in a matching glass. She couldn’t tie my shoes, but she loved to untie the laces. She loved water. She’d join me in the tub. I had to keep the toilet top down or she’d jump in and swim around. (OK, that’s not something she copied from me.) She slept wrapped up in my hair. One evening I put dinner on the table and she stayed on the floor, looking up at me and meowing. I put the dinner plate near her. She kept looking at me and crying. I transferred her food to a bowl. I gave her water in a bowl instead of a glass like mine. Then she purred and ate and drank and I don’t think she ever copied me again.

They’ll tell you cats don’t tolerate change. Always buy the same brand of cat litter. If you have to change their food, you’ll have to trick them, introducing the new flavor gradually. etc. etc. Desi was adaptable. She accepted any substitution without complaint, except that she accepted no substitute for me.

That made it hard to travel. I had to go to Vermont twice a year to teach. There was always someone here to take care of her, but she’d get sick from stress. Dad had a stroke. I went to New Jersey to be with him. Desi got sick.etc etc . Stress led to crystals led to damage led to her inability to control her urine. It wasn’t her fault. I couldn’t afford to keep replacing mattresses or the futon sofa. I had to stop inviting people over. But Desi had taught me unconditional love. What’s a ruined mattress compared to that?

Desi with vase
The economy crashed and three jobs evaporated. There was no work in Los Angeles. The only money I earned was from out-of-town assignments. I traveled a lot and I felt so guilty. When I returned from the last trip, she had stopped eating and I promised her I wouldn’t leave again.


Her appetite came back. For the next five months, I never left her, but we went to the vet over and over again, each time with a seemingly minor problem, hyperthyroidism that could be controlled, an infection that could be cured, impacted anal sacs and abscesses. There were weeks when she seemed healthy and happy and I’d think everything was fine. Then she stopped eating again. She lost pound after pound. There was so little left of her. I tempted her with her favorite–tuna fish and rejoiced when she ate. But then she refused it. She hid whenever I tried to tempt her again.

Why didn’t I trust what she was telling me? I kept putting her favorite food under her nose. She kept running from it. Those few mouthfuls of tuna she did swallow must have caused excruciating pain and there I was, repeatedly tempting her. The last morning of her life we discovered her intestine was completely blocked with tumors.

I held her and said goodbye on August 3rd, 2012.

Author Pamela Painter says her son told her “You can be between men, but you can’t be between cats.” But I can’t face adopting another. Maybe like Desi, I accept no substitute. In spite of which, I need to be among cats, so I’ve been volunteering at the Amanda Foundation. The rescue cats need some attention and affection as much as I need them.

After some time, I agreed to foster a beautiful kitten that needed a temporary home.


She was soon adopted.

Then I took in Johnny, the jaunty but mellow and companionable 7-year-old altered tom

more johnny 008

who stayed with me for three months before the Rascal and Chloe Rescue had to take him back after pipes broke in the apartment above me and workmen needed the run of my place to make repairs, after which I was again working out-of-town. I hope he has a loving home soon.

Don’t I get attached? Well, of course, but while it’s nice having a cat around, they are so very much Not-Desi that I miss her more than ever.

For years, I’ve tried to put into words what she taught me about trust. How she trusted me with her life without ever relinquishing her own sense of self. I could never get the words right. (Just as I failed to trust her when she asked me to understand her rejection of food.)

Trust. But Ashana M. expresses it perfectly in her blog, so after saying thanks for reading, I’ll give her the last word.

What Duc Is Doing

August 3, 2013

If you read my last post, you know about California’s Three-Strikers hoping to be re-sentenced and released from prison and the obstacles they face. Duc Ta is now the point man, hired by Amity, to work on putting together the sorts of transitional plans that will win release. He is working constantly with hardly a moment for any personal phone calls or emails. So if any of you are wondering why you haven’t heard from him, now you know. There are people who need his time right now more than we do!