A few years ago, San Diego Unified launched pilot program aimed at incorporating a new approach to school discipline, called restorative justice, to the district.

Restorative justice brings someone who has done something wrong together with their victims — to listen, understand, empathize and heal.

When student offenders participate in restorative justice exercises, they may still face punishment, but the school is less likely to suspend or expel them. The students are more likely to stay in school to learn.

It’s well received where it’s implemented.

Except — so far — only a smidgen of San Diego’s district schools receive restorative justice training.

“Right now, not one school is regarded as a true restorative campus running at 100 percent. They are all in the beginning stages,” Mario Valladolid, a counselor in the district’s race/human relations & advocacy department, wrote in an email.

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A lack of human and financial resources seems to be behind the slow rollout.

“We are at a turning point right now,” Valladolid said at a recent Board of Education meeting. “We are looking at the (Local Control and Accountability Plan) … we are way under what we should be in order to be a restorative district.”

According to the 2015-2016 LCAP, a blueprint for doling out state money to schools, the district plans to expand restorative justice programs to reach more students. (The expansion plan is in the LCAP more than once – in one section, as a way to close the achievement gap and promote effective and positive behavior support for black and Latino students. In another section, it’s meant to provide a positive school environment, climate and culture through addressing students’ social and emotional needs.)

But Valladolid said the district allocates fewer financial resources to restorative justice programs compared with other school districts in the state.

“We looked at what L.A. Unified has been given in terms of finances, in terms of resources, and Oakland Unified and Santa Ana Unified, and it’s not even close to what we get. We’re getting $800,000 out of the LCAP that’s been allocated for us … and millions of dollars have been given to the other districts, and we’re the second largest district. Our climate should be that we should be the models of the other districts, and we’re not,” Valladolid said.

Just a few months ago, Cindy Marten, San Diego Unified School District superintendent, said she supports using restorative justice in the district and views it as a benefit for students.

She felt so strongly about the program’s value that after a fight between Lincoln High School students and a school police officer in February, she announced the students involved would not be expelled. Instead, she wanted to apply restorative justice, she said — even as the students faced felony assault charges.

“What we’re looking for is how to not repeat, and the data on recidivism is what we’re trying to change,” Marten told KUSI.

Jesus Montana, president of the San Diego Unified Police Officers Association, told the San Diego Union-Tribune that restorative justice exercises weren’t possible for the students because their conversations could be used in court as part of the criminal investigation.

But despite Marten’s stance and the program’s inclusion in the LCAP — restorative justice expansion plans are barely expanding at all.

“A few years back, certain schools had staff trained and [the district] picked certain high schools to be piloted programs, but with only one part-time staff, this only allowed the district to take on one school,” Valladolid said.

In 2014, juniors in Crawford High School’s law academy, which operates a Teen Court, received peer mediation training and learned to be Circle Keepers, or student facilitators of restorative practice exercises, he said.

Then two more schools got on board.

“Hoover and Lincoln were also chosen to expand the restorative justice program and follow the same model as what Crawford is doing, but without peer mediation and Teen Court,” Valladolid said.

While additional San Diego schools receive minimal restorative justice training, several more schools want training — even though it isn’t mandatory, Valladolid said.

“A school chooses to have their students and staff trained,” he said.

“Once principals understand it, they’ll be anxious to have it at their schools,” said Hoover High School’s principal, Joe Austin.

Hoover reduced the amount of student suspensions from 321 in 2013-2014 to only 58 the next school year.

“What we’ve found is two things: It’s a lot more work to be restorative but it changes behaviors,” Austin said on a recent episode of VOSD’s “Good Schools for All” podcast. “So, in the end, we’re a learning institution and we’re helping kids understand the impact of their actions.”

Ciria Brewer, Hoover’s dean of students, described, on the podcast, a recent restorative justice student conference with three students — who experienced an altercation — and their parents. “Everybody had a chance to talk about their perspective, what the impact on them has been and what they need to be able to feel safe and move forward,” Brewer said.

Prior to the restorative justice option, Austin said, “The facts of this event would have included a certain arrest — absolutely an arrest, maybe a recommendation for expulsion.”

The statewide implementation of restorative justice aligns with a state bill signed in 2014 that eliminated so-called willful defiance as a justifiable reason to expel students, and limits its use as a justification for suspensions. Willful defiance was used as a catch-all reason for punishing students – it could be used to describe “pretty much anything that disrupts class, from having a cell phone go off to refusing to do school work,” VOSD’s Mario Koran wrote in 2014.

Before the bill, districts disproportionately used willful defiance to discipline black students and, in some districts, Latino students, too. In 2012-13, black students made up about 6 percent of total state school enrollment, but 19 percent of suspensions for defiance, EdSource reported.

In San Diego Unified, more Latino students were suspended for willful defiance in the 2011-2012 school year than every other student subgroup combined.

“Kids who have been suspended or expelled are two times more likely to drop out and five times more likely to turn to crime,” Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, who introduced the bill, told EdSource. “Rather than kicking students out of school, we need to keep young people in school on track to graduate, and out of the criminal justice system.”

Despite limited resources, Valladolid said his department is moving forward as best it can.

“This summer we will be training Lincoln High School students who have already been trained to be Circle Keepers to become ‘Trainers of Trainers’ and train a group of students from Knox Middle School to become Circle Keepers,” he said.

Meanwhile, the district is developing next school year’s LCAP and invites community members and stakeholders to provide feedback in an online survey.

    This article relates to: Education, School Discipline

    Written by Rachel Evans

    Rachel Evans is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. She can be reached at rachel.evans@voiceofsandiego.org

    EducatedMom subscribermember

    It might be worth checking Vallodolid's contentions about restorative justice spending.  There are a couple of districts that do spend more on a per student basis, but I believe LAUSD is pretty close to SDUSD's spending on a per student basis--they are just so much larger that the dollar amount is also larger.

    What parents and the community as a whole want to know is whether students feel safer on campuses, whether the issues that caused students to be expelled or suspended (fights, drugs, alcohol use, bullying, etc.) are being reduced---not whether suspension/expulsion rates have decreased (which can decrease just because the superintendent declares that they must--which is being pushed by the state, for those who wonder who/what is behind this).  In this vein, Restorative Justice has great potential.  All parties are brought together to solve the problem so that not only the student who "perpetrated" the action is held accountable, but so that the victim, who will encounter this student again on campus, can feel safe again (which doesn't generally happen under a typical suspension).

    However, Restorative Justice. done well, is a time-consuming and costly practice.  A principal who is a fan of restorative justice remarked at a meeting on the topic that it would have taken 30 min to suspend a student, but it took three days to practice restorative justice.  Education funding is limited and stretched thin in SDUSD.  So the reality is that "more funding" for one thing becomes "less funding" for something else.  It will be a question of defining funding priorities (perhaps more funding for restorative justice will require less funding for policing?) and also of finding less-costly and convenient ways to bring Restorative Justice training to the thousands of district employees who work with students directly (from classroom teachers to counselors and principals) than the department's current practice (of holding 35-person training sessions and going from school to school to help intervene).

    Michael Robertson
    Michael Robertson subscribermember

    This is a gross mischaracterization:

    districts disproportionately used willful defiance to discipline black students and, in some districts,

    What this should say is:

    Black students engaged in behavior deemed willful defiance leading to suspension at a higher rate than non black students.

    The first statement suggests racist teachers mistreat black students. There's no data to suggest that. I'm surprised teachers and their union don't object to this slanderous suggestion.

    The second statement points to the root cause which is the student's own behavior.

    David subscriber

    The concept behind "restorative justice" is noble; however, how it's being implemented is another conversation. Teachers, up in northern California, were picketing two month ago explaining that "restorative justice" is allowing poor behavior to go unchecked. Students go to the office and are sent right back to class. Students get into an altercation and the other, well behaved students, view no consequential repercussions. Teachers all around this state are complaining that classrooms are becoming increasingly violent. Teachers are becoming chastised for suggesting suspension. You have to ask yourself, since suspension is tied to school funding and now possibly overall school success, is this the reason districts need to lower suspension rates? I am sorry to say, I believe you will see an up-tic in aggressive behavior and well mannered student will seek education from schools that require proper behavior and structure. I challenge people to ask an educator about this issue. I would suggest you will find little enthusiasm expressed upon how this concept is being executed. 

    DavidM subscriber

    @David You raise valid points.  Clearly, restorative justice relies on some form of learning and penance that must be included before disciplinary incidents are swept under the rug.  But the now-traditional alternative (zero tolerance suspension and expulsion) is equally unfair.  Restorative justice relies on not "writing off" a young person based on a single incident; it affirms faith in the ability to teach and learn.  Zero tolerance willingly abandons whatever potential a young person has.  Neither is ever going to be perfect.

    richard brick
    richard brick subscribermember

    "Restorative Justice" is something that the police department doesn't have an interest in, they would whether send all the students to prison. They are more interested in the school to prison pipeline so as to keep the for profit prisons full.

    The police seem to think that our children are prison material for acting like teenagers. Get into a fight, must be arrested, have a discipline problem at school, cuff um and put them in the back of a patrol car.

    Get the cops out of the schools, if that doesn't work how about at least demand that these LEO'S who do patrol at schools have some type of training on how to talk to students, how to get students to cooperate, how to gain respect of the students. And be sure that any LEO who has worked at a school and has had problems with students should be removed immediately, i.e. the one at Lincoln High School. who turned play fighting into a near riot because he had some vendetta against a student. 

    Brian Edmonston
    Brian Edmonston

    @richard brick Nice idea, but what about the students and teachers left behind who have to deal with undisciplined students (include thugs, yeah I said thugs)?  

    The LEO's were brought in for a reason.  They may go overboard sometimes, but other students and teachers do not feel safe without them.

    DavidM subscriber

    @Brian Edmonston @richard brick "but other students and teachers do not feel safe without them."

    Have you been in a school during a police investigation?  Other students and teachers often do not feel safe WITH them.

    We've given school police an admirable job: protect the students.  But there are actually very, very few actual day to day dangers to students.  So police spend whatever admiration the students may have for them by investigating students and turning everyday disciplinary issues into juvenile court cases.

    Brian Edmonston
    Brian Edmonston

    @DavidM @Brian Edmonston @richard brick You are wrong.  

    Many schools have no police presence at all.  Police are only brought in in response to a high number of incidents and requests from the union and administration.

    Remove police from these schools and people will stop attending and teachers will leave. Also, lawsuits will be filed.

    Check your facts.

    DavidM subscriber

    @Brian Edmonston @DavidM @richard brick  "Police are only brought in in response to a high number of incidents and requests from the union and administration."

    I agree that not all schools have officers assigned to them full time, but SDUSDPD has assumed jurisdiction at all the District's schools, and is therefore "called in" whenever there is an "incident."  My son's school has an officer about half time, just to conduct an investigation of a disciplinary incident.  (And you have not faced a truly difficult decision until you've called an officer's bluff and insisted on being present during questioning of your own child despite a threat to arrest you for "interfering.")

    Strangely enough, SDUSDPD yields jurisdiction for major crimes against District staff.


    Certainly you may want to check YOUR facts.  There is no reliable data to suggest that the presence of police on a campus yields anything other than additional friction between students and police.

    Bill Bradshaw
    Bill Bradshaw subscribermember

    I understand “restorative justice”; I’ve been trained in it and have been a practitioner, but here’s what I don’t understand:  If SDUSD is getting short funding (according to Ms. Valladolid), how come?  Who controls the allocations and what criteria are there for distribution?  Is this a school board failure?  If so, what has Cindy Marten done about it?  Where’s the accountability here?

    As for the police union’s stance (assuming the union rep knows what he’s talking about), maybe Marten should consult with other superintendents to see if their police departments take this stance, then sit down with Chief Zimmerman to see what can be worked out .  

    DavidM subscriber

    @Bill Bradshaw  "then sit down with Chief Zimmerman to see what can be worked out"

    I agree that it is unusual journalism to take a statement from a union official regarding the juvenile law effect of a collaborative meeting.  A statement from a prosecutor is more likely to have legally accurate.  But if the meetings are under the cover of a group counseling session, a strong argument can be made that therapist-patient privilege protects the statements.

    In any event, Chief Zimmerman has no input whatsoever.  The school district has it's own police force and its own chief.