Restorative Justice in LA Schools

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.

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4 Responses to “Restorative Justice in LA Schools”

  1. Ashana M Says:

    I have always wished I could use council circles in the classroom, but kids need a background in them. They need to understand their purpose and what the benefits are. They need to feel it’s going to be worthwhile to wait their turn, and that it will be worthwhile to speak. And there just isn’t time to do all of that. Also, our classrooms are really too large. It’s hard to do a council with 35 or more students in a class. But I really hope what they are trying to do will work. In some cases, I’m sure restorative justice will make absolutely no difference. The defiant kid will just see it as an invitation to trample. But for the majority of problems this may really, really help. And it’s getting the majority involved in school and feeling like they matter and are part of things that will make a difference in the climate. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had kids act out in class who were really responding to something that had occurred at home with their parents or with a different teacher or a friend before class. And really what they needed were skills and the space to handle situations in a more productive way. They didn’t really want to disrupt class or cause me problems in particular. That’s just what they knew how to do. And there do need to be consequences so that there is a reason to learn new ways of doing things–otherwise, it’s easier to stick with the known. But it’s so hard to get kids to learn them when there isn’t time to talk about it and they don’t have a second to themselves to calm down. All day long, school is just rush, rush, rush. No time to think, no time to get a breath, no time to have a chat with someone that makes you feel better.

  2. desilef Says:

    I was hoping you would respond from real experience!

    And I just hope that class sizes can come down and there will be more time in the classroom for these sorts of initiatives if we can stop putting so many hours into teaching to the test. The reforms don’t work without a lot of other changes. And I don’t think one teacher can do this successfully so it’s clear even in a smaller group it would be very unlikely you could have changed things in a profound way by trying things only in your own classroom. I do think everyone in the school community has to have a basic understanding and commitment to a process. And yes, I agree about the rush rush rush. None of it is healthy.

    There do have to be consequences in restorative justice and there are but they tend to be having the kid do something — like cleaning the classroom — rather than sitting in an isolation room. With extremely troubled kids, of course more is needed, but those kids who act out because of something that happened at home or with another kid will handle their circumstances better when they have experience in trusting some adults and talking about their feelings.
    People can embrace new things not only when there are negative consequences from past behavior but when they start to see the new way makes them feel good. Or at least better.

    It’s all huge. And RJ is just one approach. It’s crazy how everything has to be done all at once or nothing works. Like reading skills. If kids can’t read at or near grade level, they are so frustrated, no wonder they act out. So how do we make education more individualized to be sure kids are brought up to speed and have their emotional needs considered as well? Not in a room of 35, or classrooms like those I’ve been told about with 60 or more and nowhere near enough chairs to go around so kids are standing and sitting on windowsills.

    It’s very hard for teachers and administrators when every six months (or less) new philosophies and procedures get announced and everyone has to get on board or else. I don’t know how people in the system cope.

    I guess I just want to feel hopeful that we can see change that benefits the kids.

  3. tips and tricks for all Says:

    I love reading through an article that will make people think.
    Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

  4. Panel Discussion on The Point for The Young Turks Network | Nobody Wakes Up Pretty Says:

    […] On Wednesday, I joined Ana Kasparian, Priscilla Ocen, and Jody David Armour to talk about incarceration, the sterilization of women in CA prisons, George Zimmerman, and Walmart. I only regret that though I got to mention the school-to-prison pipeline, there wasn’t time enough in the segment to talk about what’s happening now in LA to try to disrupt it. (You can find previous posts here if you’re interested. Here’s a couple of recent posts: Better Outcomes for Juveniles–Maybe. and Restorative Justice in LA Schools.). […]

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