As California’s fourth largest school district, Fresno Unified has recently begun revamped efforts to address its high number of school dropouts. The district is using approaches that involve listening to different individuals in the community, including experts in education-related fields and students. Several ideas have been suggested as to the cause of the high dropout rate. One idea that surfaced through the increasing amount of dialogue is that current discipline policies in Fresno Unified need to be addressed. Critics believe that current Fresno Unified policies push out students and don’t provide them with the opportunity to learn from their mistakes in a way that does not hinder their academic achievement.
In order to provide students with the opportunity to be held accountable for their actions and have them learn from their experiences, supporters of restorative justice have proposed a switch from current discipline practices into a system that focuses on healing relationships. This system asks why the incident happened and how can it can be prevented. It is different than simply finding out who was involved and dispensing out punishment without considering how effective the punishment will actually be, or whether it is deserved.
This type of system is known as restorative justice. By using several methods, advocates for restorative justice state that it aims to “restore” those affected by the incident and meet the needs that might have been created by the event. These methods vary but usually follow a theme of cooperative resolution and voluntary participation. Conferences between the individuals involved are quite common.
Restorative justice has actually been implemented in schools and in the juvenile justice system. The Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) states that it works on the principles of restorative justice and focuses on working with people affected by juvenile crime.
The program brings victims and offenders together to discuss what happened and allows the offender to take responsibility for his or her actions. Each side is allowed to state the actions and how they can reach a solution to the problem. Once both sides can agree upon a solution, they discuss how to carry it out and a time frame of when it can be completed.
VORP says they have seen success with their program and great response from participants in the program. Noelle Nightingale, Executive Director of VORP, attributes some of the success to financial concerns and the need for alternatives.
“I think a lot of it has to do with economic times,” said Nightingale. “Budgets are pretty tight so people are a little bit more open to alternatives to what has currently been happening.”
Nightingale believes this to be one of the many factors as to why people take advantage of VORP. Noelle also stated that using VORP makes sense fiscally.
“They can’t just hire more probation officers,” Nightingale said. “They can’t just keep all the pods open in juvenile hall.”
Noelle says this because she believes that these issues have to be resolved and not just put away. She also states that the process is popular with VORP participants. Noelle recalled a past case in which she heard positive feedback from a former participant in the program.
“The victim actually ended up coming into court and stating how much he appreciated the program,” Nightingale said. She states she has heard similar feedback in many other cases.
VORP’s caseload consists mostly of misdemeanors, but they are looking to expand and take on felonies as well. One of VORP’s best claims of success has been the seemingly low rate of repeat offenses of participants of the program compared to non-participants. VORP’s statistics show only 6.59 percent of its Community Justice Conference (CJC) participants have been found guilty or responsible of breaking the law again compared to 18.18 percent of non CJC participants for the year of 2012. Noelle has stated that when they begin taking on the felony cases she predicts that the difference in recidivism will be even more dramatic.
Districts across the state have adopted restorative justice practices. Three years after Oakland Unified School District began making plans to overhaul its discipline policies, the district has restorative justice programs in 12 schools, some of which have seen up to 85 percent reduction in suspensions. San Francisco, Sacramento, Raisin City and Immanuel Schools in Reedley, along with rural districts in Merced County, have also joined the nationwide movement to reduce suspension and expulsion rates through restorative justice.
Immanuel Schools adopted restorative justice after participating in a training on the alternative discipline model at Fresno Pacific University in 2005. Ryan Woods, the superintendent of Immanuel Schools, said the transition was not a simple one.
“Overall it was not easy because there is no set answer,” Woods said. “Each situation is unique and you have to treat them as such, and that is something that wasn’t easy and still isn’t easy today.”
Despite these difficulties, Supt. Woods said that he is very glad that the schools actually made the transition. However, he does realize that his schools have several advantages that other school districts might not have. Besides the benefit of restorative justice fitting in with the school’s Christian theme, the school is also small, serving only 402 students. However, there have been numerous schools that have implemented restorative justice throughout California. These include Fresno County’s Raisin City School and several schools in the Oakland Unified School District. Recently, the implementation of restorative justice in FUSD has become a possibility, especially now that it is a recommendation of the Graduation Task Force.
Superintendent Woods says that if this option is taken in FUSD, it needs to be backed by school leaders.
“Administrators have to believe in it because they’re the ones that have to support it and they have to understand the process,” said Woods.
The need and effectiveness of restorative justice has been debated and continues to be a topic of discussion. Some of the things that people question about restorative justice include its actual effectiveness and possible errors in recording its claims of success. Some state that perhaps the reason that there is a comparatively lower rate of repeat offenses in restorative justice practices is that those individuals who voluntarily go through restorative practices are probably not likely to reoffend in the first place.
Mike Reynolds, author of the three strikes law, has expressed some concerns about restorative justice. He was first introduced to the concept of restorative justice in the early ‘80s. He has voiced that that the restoration of an incident is unarguably a good thing and not many can deny that. Benefits like being recompensed for the damage done to property or being reunited with previously stolen possessions are difficult to oppose. He does however think that a system like this could only work for for small crimes and that “restoring” certain wrongdoings just isn’t possible. He also expressed some concern with the apparent lack of tangible data that really gets to the core of restorative justice’s why and how. He lists as examples the fact that although most restorative processes are voluntary in nature, no one tracks the reasons why individuals choose to go with the restorative route.
Reynolds asks questions like, how does one know that the individuals who participate in the restorative process aren’t the type of individuals who would have been less likely to reoffend in the first place? He also points out that these types of answers can be useful in proving the effectiveness of the program, and that this is something that needs to be investigated, especially when any program works for the public and is funded to do so.
Recently, the implementation of restorative justice in FUSD has become a possibility, especially now that it is a recommendation of the Graduation Task Force. In March, the district assembled a task force consisting of educators, administrators and community members whose goal was to research solutions to the dropout crisis. The adoption of recommendation eight, which relates to the implementation of a restorative model in schools, makes these questions very relevant.
So far the timeline for the implementation of restorative justice in schools is uncertain, but work is underway. Fresno Unified’s superintendent Michael Hanson has stressed the importance of proper implementation.
“Just changing a policy and just expecting that to drive everybody’s behavior is not very realistic,” he said. He foresees several difficulties in implementation and knows that there is a lot of work to be done if FUSD is to succeed. “Communicating and developing a trusting environment in which to develop this will be the most difficult thing,” Hanson said. He also points out that although Oakland is several years into similar work, restorative justice is just beginning to be used at Skyline High School, the fit is the first comprehensive high school in Oakland to do so.
“My initial hope was to go much bigger, much faster. But in conversations around it, on the central San Joaquin Valley floor, we don’t appear to have a great deal of capacity that would overnight or in a dramatic way turn Fresno. So I think it’s going to take us awhile to build the ability to do this,” Hanson said. Among the factors to consider will be the fact that FUSD is still wrestling with budget cuts and that the process of restorative justice is a relatively new process to many.
Hopefully the decisions FUSD leaders have made and the ones that they continue to make will be ones that have the best interest of our students. We must remember to put our young people at the forefront of our minds when we make decisions that affect them and truly consider how best to sculpt them into the leaders of tomorrow that they will become. Perhaps restorative justice is a good avenue to help our youth overcome a troubling trend. Nevertheless, any decision that is made to help our students must do just that and help us invest in our future.
Miguel joined The kNOw in 2010. He attends Edison High and will graduate in 2013. Miguel plays guitar and likes to listen to music from the 90's. His favorite part of The kNOw is the magazine. Miguel is actively engaged with Fresno's Building Healthy Communities and is a member of the BHC Hub.