Merced Schools See the Benefits of Restorative Justice

By Ana B. Ibarra 
High school officials in Merced County are taking a new approach at improving discipline policies on campuses, and that approach is showing a significant improvement in student participation and wellness, according to a new report.
Restorative justice policies, which focus on non-adversarial and dialogue-based decisionmaking, are proving to be more effective than zero-tolerance practices, school officials said during a presentation last week.
According to the Health Impact Assessment report, the restorative justice method can reduce school suspensions by 20 percent to 40 percent in Merced. If it were to be adopted countywide and implemented properly, researchers estimate that 3,400 fewer students would be suspended.
Suspensions in the county totaled 8,500 in the 2012-13 school year. The report looks at six high schools in Merced County where the restorative method is in use: Le Grand, Buhach Colony, Golden Valley, Yosemite, Sequoia and Valley Community.
Zero-tolerance policies don’t work, according to the report. They make schools no safer, and can harm students’ health, well-being and academic achievement, the report added. School officials explained that through restorative practices, students engage in collaborative problem-solving and steer away from violence.
Donna Alley, superintendent at Le Grand Union High School, said that last year there were no expulsions, compared with 11 during the prior year. She credits the change to the implementation of restorative justice in the school.
“We see a different climate on campus,” Alley said. In the first six weeks of this school year, Alley said there has been only one small altercation between students on campus. “It’s taking us a while, but we’re getting there.”
A panel of students who have participated in restorative justice training shared their thoughts on the new model during Tuesday’s presentation.
Esaiah Villalobos, a senior at Le Grand High School, said that through restorative practice he has learned that fighting isn’t always the answer and that words can be more effective in getting a point across.
“I like that we get to talk about our problems and actually be heard,” Villalobos said. “In a normal school, we would get kicked out of class, but here we get to talk it out.”
Villalobos sees the positive impact conflict-resolution methods are having among his peers. “I’ve seen students with a beef in first period shake hands by the end of the day … so you do see a difference,” he added.
According to school officials, teachers go through a training in which they learn how to deal with disruptive students using restorative practices. Although some students indicated they have experienced some resistance from their teachers, others said they have seen teachers become more patient and understanding.
Alex Salas, a sophomore at Golden Valley High School, said he has noticed a difference in the way some of his teachers handle classroom disruptions.
“I had a teacher who would always kick us out of class for any little thing, but this year she’s different. She gives us a warning first and makes us fill out incident reports. She gives us a chance to explain ourselves,” Salas said.
“I actually like what’s happening because we don’t get in trouble as much,” he added. “If teachers let us stay in the classroom instead of kicking us out, we don’t fall behind in our work.”
Besides a higher attendance rate, the benefits of restorative justice, according to the report, are a higher self-esteem, pro-social values, a decrease in dropout rates, an increase in test scores and graduation rates, and a reduction in bullying and school arrests.
School officials said they are training teachers on the restorative method at other local high schools, including Merced and Livingston. They anticipate it will take about three years for the restorative justice policies to be fully implemented.