LAUSD celebrates 10 years of restorative justice, but progress remains uneven

Credit: Alison Yin / EdSource

This May, the Los Angeles Unified School District celebrated the 10th anniversary of the School Climate Bill of Rights — a resolution that halted suspensions for willful defiance and brought restorative justice practices into classrooms.

Social justice advocates and school board members applauded the nearly 80% reduction in overall suspensions in LAUSD since the new policy passed.

“The best thing that has happened is that LA Unified is seeing students for students, and that includes their boundary-pushing, their risk-taking, their lesson-learning — you know, behaviors that come with growth and development,” said school board member Tanya Ortiz Franklin, who authored May’s commemorative resolution.

“And we’re seeing the adults as fully capable responders who can also learn and grow and shift to be more holistic and considerate and thoughtful about how this generation is growing up and preparing for their own leadership in the world.”

Amid the celebrations are lingering questions concerning LAUSD’s implementation of the resolution. Most would acknowledge that while there has been some progress, incorporating restorative justice is far from being realized.

Suspensions are down, but training sessions for teachers have grown scant and aren’t mandatory, causing frustration for those who don’t understand how to incorporate restorative justice. Elsewhere, restorative justice teachers claim they work hard to expand staff knowledge but don’t get enough support from school administration and the district.

LAUSD “did their part, but then they stopped,” said Scott Whitney, the restorative justice teacher at Jordan High School. “They need to dig deeper in refining this sort of justice practice so that more … people have faith in it.”

School climate ‘bill of rights’: the basics

In the 2011-12 academic year alone, LAUSD — the nation’s second-largest district — suspended more than 17,000 students. That’s roughly the size of UC Santa Cruz’s current undergraduate student body.

Those suspensions disproportionately affected students of color who are already more likely to be swept into the criminal justice system. With Latino and Black students making up more than 90% of suspensions in 2012-2013, local advocates knew something had to be done. So they mobilized and campaigned for the resolution.

Some of the students who were suspended received traditional out-of-school suspensions barring them from being on campus, while others received in-school suspensions, meaning they were on school grounds but siloed away from classroom activities.

Students wouldn’t be leaving campus, but they were also not in class. “The whole idea of zero tolerance was still very real,” said Omar Torres, director of community development at the Weingart East Los Angeles YMCA.

For two years, community advocates and students campaigned for the School Climate Bill of Rights, arguing that suspensions for “willful defiance” had become a “catch all” justification to suspend or expel a student for small infractions like talking back or refusing to take a hat off.

“These suspensions for willful defiance essentially are a precursor to … a young person having contact with the criminal justice system,” Torres said. “You know, if young people aren’t in school, where are they?”

Then-school board member Monica García introduced the resolution, which the board adopted on May 14, 2013.

“We wanted to make sure that we were able to keep our young people in school and really get to the root cause of the issues because we didn’t want our youth to be seen as disposable,” Torres said.

With the resolution in place, teachers are asked to understand a student’s behavior and directly respond to their individual needs instead of resorting to suspensions.

If a student talks back for not having a pencil, for example, the teacher hands them one rather than suspending them. The model is also designed to help students recognize the impact of their actions on others.

Holding students accountable for their actions without punitive disciplinary measures is part of that, said Whitney, the restorative justice teacher.

“If you fought on school campus grounds … you should also have to repair the school community,” Whitney said. “That can be anything from, you know, a week or two of campus cleanup to … having the student apologize to the teacher and apologize to the other students in the class.”

Since the resolution’s adoption, some campuses — like Felicitas & Gonzalo Mendez High School — have made especially noteworthy strides, according to Henry Perez, the executive director of InnerCity Struggle, a local nonprofit organization that focuses on alternative methods to community safety.

Just over 10 years ago, schools in the East Side were suspending between 600 and 1,000 students each year, Perez said.  But with a wealth of support from organizations like InnerCity Struggle, Mendez High has sustained a 0.4% suspension rate, in comparison to the state average of 3.1%.

“We can correct (students) in ways that help them ultimately discipline themselves,” board member Ortiz Franklin said. “The goal with discipline long term is not ‘you behave in a certain way because you don’t want to get in trouble,’ but ‘you behave in a certain way because that’s the kind of person you want to be.’”

In addition to removing more punitive forms of discipline, teachers are now encouraged to incorporate restorative justice activities into the daily classroom schedule — ranging from collective brainstorming sessions that develop classroom rules to students sharing their life experiences more openly in “community circles.”

“Doing those restorative circles … gave all of us a chance to share out a little bit more personal things about us,” said Amy West, a fifth grade teacher. “You know, maybe we’re going through a divorce. Maybe, you know, your parents … don’t live together anymore. Or, you know, maybe a grandmother just passed away.

“It just helps so much, you know, to build more of a relationship with the kids.”

Caught in limbo: teachers’ journeys with implementation

When algebra and AVID teacher Sandra Ruiz-Chau was first introduced to restorative justice more than a decade ago, she was skeptical.

“I was like, ‘Why do I care why someone threw a pencil at someone else’s face. They threw it at the other person’s face, and I want them to stop. I don’t care why. I just need them to stop,’” Ruiz-Chau said. “And I realized … if I want this behavior to stop, I need to care about the root cause. I need to care and investigate and spend more time on figuring out how to stop it in the future.”

That realization came, in part, from a meeting with one child’s parents and campus administration to discuss the student’s specific needs.

“It wasn’t until I got invited to this meeting that … I learned the student was hard of hearing. … And things started to make sense to me,” Ruiz-Chau said. “It started to make sense why she was so upset at little things, or what I deemed as little things.”

She now teaches at Los Angeles High School and admits that not all teachers support restorative justice in the same way.

It’s a “mixed bag,” Ruiz-Chau said. There is a group of about 20 teachers on the campus who regularly implement restorative justice, but there are others who maintain they’re “going to do things (their) way, and it’s the old-school way.”

A lot of students are still struggling emotionally from pandemic tragedies and acting out as a result, but schools and teachers haven’t been adequately prepared to respond, said Aileen Adao, restorative-justice teacher at Eagle Rock High School.

“There’s definitely a lot of unresolved tension and anxiety that was built up that I don’t think we addressed,” Adao said, adding that there’s been an uptick in tardiness and fights in her school in the past couple of years. “I don’t think LAUSD or any school addressed it well, to be able to kind of unpack the things that we experienced. It was just kind of like, ‘OK, we’re back, and now it’s business as usual.’”

Nicolle Fefferman, a teacher in the district and co-founder of the Facebook group Parents Supporting Teachers, said she often feels stuck in limbo because older, more punitive measures aren’t allowed, yet there isn’t adequate support to properly implement restorative justice. As a result, she said, nothing happens.

“What I’m hearing right now from … some families online on our Facebook group is that kids who are harmed by other students don’t feel safe going back to school,” she said. “That’s a failure.”.

While suspensions for willful defiance came to a standstill after the school climate bill passed, teachers and staff can still suspend students for a number of reasons, including causing physical harm and carrying weapons or drugs on campus.

Although she’s a proponent of restorative justice, fifth grade teacher West said stricter disciplinary measures might be needed in more extreme cases — including where bullying is involved. Once a student is reported to school administration, it’s out of teachers’ hands.

“I’m not exactly 100% sure on … what the real consequences are,” said West, who teaches at Calvert Charter for Enriched Studies. “There are two students at our school (wh0) … whatever consequences they’re getting, it doesn’t seem that it’s working.”

Haphazard teacher training and support

Many people interviewed for this story said that part of the reason teachers feel ill-supported is that the district doesn’t require all employees to attend restorative practices training sessions.

West said training sessions played a key role in her mastery of managing her classroom and leading weekly restorative circles. But she and her colleagues had to take extra steps to request the training from a district leader since these sessions aren’t mandatory.

Ten years ago, soon after the school climate bill passed, each school in the district was asked to send five employees to training, with the expectation that those five would spread the word throughout their campuses, Ortiz Franklin said.

Since then, the training sessions have only been offered on an ad-hoc basis for employees who choose to go. EdSource requested a copy of the calendar of district training sessions, but Ortiz Franklin said there wasn’t one available.

More than 23,000 of the district’s 65,000 employees have completed restorative justice training sessions since July 2021. And the task force on school culture, climate and safety, which helps implement the school climate bill of rights, only resumed its monthly meetings this past February after a Covid-induced hiatus.

A district spokesperson said in an email that all district staff, students and parents/guardians/caregivers are expected to model and support the implementation of positive behavior interventions and supports/restorative practices.

LAUSD would not, however, provide specific responses to questions or provide details on its support of restorative justice.

Restorative justice teachers 

At Theodore Roosevelt High School, Nicolette Tiberio Morales works as a restorative justice teacher — a role carved out to help bring understanding to conflicts, support students through personal challenges and train school communities on restorative practices.

“A young person shows up at the school site because a relationship matters to them. That’s 80% of the job, be that relationship with a peer, be that relationship with a class, a subject, a book, whatever it is,” Morales said. “The rest of the 20% is just the magic that’s created between the spaces that they engage.”

Though not explicitly part of the School Climate Bill of Rights, teachers like Morales have been at the forefront of helping educators incorporate restorative practices — but only at the LAUSD schools that have one.

When the school climate bill initially passed in 2013, more than 20 restorative justice teachers served in select “local districts” within Los Angeles Unified.

That changed in February 2021 with the passage of the Black Student Achievement Plan, or BSAP, which funds resources for 53 schools that collectively educate about a third of the district’s Black student population.

Each of the 53 schools was given money for onsite psychiatric social workers, counselors, school climate coaches and restorative justice advisers. But not all 53 campuses have a restorative justice teacher even with the funding available.

Middle College High School is one of the district’s BSAP schools. But the school still hasn’t hired a campus restorative justice teacher, said English teacher Gina Gray.

“It makes a difference. When I first started at the school I was at previously to this one, yes, we had a restorative justice teacher,” Gray said, commending the “invaluable” training and support the restorative justice teacher provided to staff.

“They’re able to bring information, and it becomes more day-to-day when you have an actual restorative justice teacher or practitioner on a campus with you,” she said.

Gray’s school isn’t unique, even among its sister BSAP campuses.

Each month, staff members with positions funded by BSAP meet to discuss their experiences, said restorative justice teacher Ebony Batiste. During these meetings, it became apparent to her that many such schools — including her own — do not have a full team.

“The whole time, it felt like the district was flying the plane as they were building it,” Batiste said.

Batiste also said many Black Student Achievement Plan-funded teachers reported during the monthly meetings that they did not feel respected in their role — in part, because of the newness of the program and confusion about its purpose. Batiste added that her own experiences have been largely contingent on her school’s frequently changing administration.

One year, Batiste claimed, she was not allowed to give staff presentations on restorative justice practices. She’s also been asked to teach a regular class on top of her restorative justice duties and to carry out responsibilities associated with other BSAP positions that her school doesn’t currently have filled.

“It leaves their duties on us, so I feel like, sometimes, I’m supposed to be doing RJ work, but a lot of times, I’m doing school climate work. I’m doing the data from the (Pupil Services and Attendance Counselor),” Batiste said. “And they told us early on, when you have people missing, it’s a team effort.”

Without funding from the district, the remaining 93% of non-BSAP campuses can opt to pay for their own, Ortiz Franklin said.

Eagle Rock High School is one of the many campuses without district funding, but it eventually decided to bring Aileen Adao into the role.

“When I had come to the campus three years ago, I asked a lot of questions, and I observed a lot, and I recognized that we needed it,” Adao said. “I pushed for it, and my new principal was familiar with it and also believed in it. So he’s slowly made space in our budget for me to do the work.”

With a student body of more than 2,000 to support all by herself — and colleagues who do not always want to devote classroom time to restorative justice activities — Adao says she has often felt it’s an “uphill battle.”

“It’s a good start, pretty strong,” Adao said. “But, I think, given the needs, we still have a long ways to go.”

Next steps

As part of May’s commemorative resolution, the LAUSD school board formally backed Senate Bill 274, which would expand the grade levels covered by current law and prohibit schools from suspending K-12 students for willful defiance.

“It’s never going to be money or training that saves the day. It’s just doing the work,” Ortiz Franklin said, addressing other California districts making the transition. “It’s like trying it out, even for the adult. It’s making some mistakes and trying to do better the next time.”

For the first time in the School Climate Bill of Rights’ decadelong history, a report has been issued to evaluate “outcome changes in data such as suspensions, expulsions, and transfers as well as additional data more relevant today (e.g. chronic absenteeism, surveys, and mental health data), disaggregated by student group, as well as lessons learned in the first 10 years.”

It’s slated for release this November and will be presented to the Board’s School Safety and Climate committee.

“We’re raising up a new culture of the school. [My school’s fourth and fifth graders] are the little ones that loved restorative justice and love the program. And now they’re going to start to be the older kids in the program,” Batiste said.

“When we actually get a 12th grade culmination where students have had 12 years of this under their belt, I’m excited to see where those kids go and how they impact the world. And so I’m excited for the future. It’s just going to get better and better the more they know and the more they learn.”

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