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Mid-City CAN Blog

City Heights educators talk about discipline event

By Linda K. Williams and Derek Moehlenbruck

From left, Linda K. Williams, Faiza Ahmed, Derek Moehlenbruck, Crawford High School Assistant Principal Diego Gutierrez and San Diego Unified School District Trustee Marnie Foster attended a seminar to learn about positive school discipline May 20 at The California Endowment in Los Angeles.Linda K. Williams: I was honored to represent the City Heights Peace Promotion Momentum Team at The California Endowment's convening regarding Positive Behavior and Restorative Justice in Schools, on May 20 in Los Angeles. I have also been a teacher -- kindergarten-6th grade -- in the San Diego Unified School District since 1978, and am a member of the Restorative Justice Steering Committee of the Wellness and Restorative Practice Partnership at Cherokee Point Elementary. It is a project funded by The California Endowments Building Healthy Communities Initiative – a 10-year, $1 billion push to change the way that health happens in 14 California communities, including City Heights.

The vision is to make a restorative justice approach available to any/ all SDUSD students whose poor behavior choices currently result either a discretionary or mandatory suspension or expulsion.

How would it work? A working definition of restorative justice has been, "Where harm has been done, making things as right as possible."

When applied to school settings, it means bringing the student who has committed an offense that could lead to suspension or expulsion, together with those whose lives have been impacted by the offense (potentially other students, staff, and/or community), and, with the help of a trained facilitator, helping bring about
• reconciliation: mending and/or building relationships
• reparation
• restoration
• a venue for those impacted to express their point of view and to receive a sincere apology

It was exciting and inspirational to learn about the "success stories" shared at the gathering, to know that restorative justice instead of -- or, in some cases, in addition to -- suspensions and expulsions, has, in a number of locations in California, already proven its value in the following ways:
• to help prevent suspensions and expulsions (especially by lowering the repeat-offender rate)
• to use alongside mandatory suspensions and expulsions, as a successful re-entry tool
• to help create more peaceful, positive, productive school climates
• to make more "time on task" possible, leading, of course, to higher academic achievement and lowered drop-out rates
• to help save the Districts thousands dollars currently being lost when students are suspended/ expelled
• to help teachers feel more hopeful and joyful in their teaching

It was also immensely valuable to hear how different districts and projects have funded their efforts, what their learning curves have included -- and, to network with people who could be extremely valuable in assisting us in our efforts to bring the benefits of restorative justice to our schools in San Diego. It was also exciting to know that Marne Foster, our school board trustee who was a part of our six-person San Diego team, is enthusiastic about seeing how we can implement restorative justice in San Diego.

"Relationships, relationships, relationships" is what the Jose Huerta, principal of Garfield High in East L.A., described as the key to making the systems changes work. He spoke about the importance of relationships between students and teachers, students and administrators, teachers and parents, and the many, other relationships that make all the difference in the world when we want to do our best to make sure that no students fall through the cracks.

It reminded me of the oft-quoted saying: "Students won't care what you know till they know that you care."

The discussions highlighted the importance of wrap-around services; making sure that the underlying needs and causes for the student's poor choices have been met. (For example, are domestic abuse or substance abuse issues in the student's home or life? Are undiagnosed learning disabilities causing frustration and a sense of failure? Are unmet mental health needs (perhaps the student's, and/or family member/s) an issue for this student?

A very sobering connection was brought out several times: That is, research -- specifically, a report called "Classmates not Cell Mates" -- shows that students who are suspended and expelled are "almost three times as likely to have had contact with the juvenile justice system within one year" (from an article "Keeping Students in School is Vital" in the San Jose Mercury News.)

I am passionate about the hope and promise that using restorative justice in our schools offers, and would be thrilled to see it available to benefit all students throughout our district, which I know will help the district move even further towards our goals of helping all students graduate and lead healthy, positive, productive lives!

Derek Moehlenbruck: As a recent school psychology graduate student from San Diego State University, I've been privileged and honored to have experiences that not only parallel the trend in education reform with positive school discipline but also recent experiences that mirror my passion in my work with children and families.

I cannot tell you how many times I have seen children and youth referred for counseling because of behavioral concerns in the classrooms. Often times the behavior is due to pressures of academic success, bullying, emotional concerns, unidentified learning disabilities as well as other environmental factors. As a school psychologist, one of my most important roles is to find ways to connect students to the curriculum, so they can perform with academic success. Every behavioral intervention and academic intervention is eventually tied to students school performance and wellbeing. With this change, teachers and parents can expect to see the change in their students and children. When I became interested in supporting students behaviorally early on, as well as socially and emotionally, I knew that restorative practices would play a key role in supporting their success from a whole systems perspective. It gives students a chance to feel heard and make things as right as possible while at school.

It has been two years now that I have joined the Wellness and Restorative Practice Partnership, as both a restorative justice facilitator for the community in City Heights as well as a restorative practice trainer for Cherokee Point Elementary School. I was excited as well as surprised when I was asked to participate in the conference and represent not only Cherokee Point but also our team of trained facilitators within the community. I thought it started wonderfully with the human continuum icebreaker, which really challenged individual perspectives as well as the whole group. I realized that when I answered questions through the perspective of a child or a parent if felt natural and easier to stand my ground than answering as a school psychologist. Throughout the conference the theme of changing the narrative, policy and power, the three primary principles of The California Endowment, continued to remind us where the need lies. Their ideas really made me see how important this type of work truly is. Not only is it important but the data proves its effectiveness and much needed use in the California school systems. I wish we could have recorded the event for the sake of parents and teachers who were not present, so they could see the foundation of the here-to-stay method for positive discipline. The conference was inspiring as each presenter hit hot topics in educational discipline reform. Today I am excited in sharing this experience with others and I intend to continue supporting restorative practice and positive school discipline as I look for a future practicing as a school psychologist.

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