This is an exciting time for California educators. The Local Control Funding Formula is arguably the biggest change to hit California schools in the last 50 years – maybe ever – and completely overhauls how schools are funded, and how students receive resources and services.
Meanwhile, thanks to the Common Core State Standards, teachers across the state are implementing the most significant changes to classroom instruction since 1998, when the state first adopted standards of any kind.
As revolutionary as these new practices are, they won’t mean a thing if students aren’t in school and ready to learn to the best of their abilities.
Unfortunately, for too long, California schools operated under a zero tolerance approach to student discipline when misbehavior occurs. As a result, student suspensions and expulsions skyrocketed across the state, leaving students displaced – they couldn’t go to school – and discouraged as they were falling behind their peers.
Statistics overwhelmingly prove that when children aren’t in class, it’s devastating for both the student and the community. The short-term effects are an increase in delinquent, criminal and gang activity, as well as failing grades. Long-term effects include poor physical and mental health, a high risk of addiction, students dropping out and eventually incarceration. Exclusionary forms of student discipline that rely only on punitive methods exacerbate misbehavior, they don’t resolve it.
At Merced Union High School District, we saw the numbers and trends, and knew we needed to take action. I’m pleased to report restorative justice discipline works. The more educators, districts and communities adopt and effectively implement this practice, the better it is for our students and families.
School-based restorative justice offers students, teachers and administrators an effective way to reach a dignified response to misbehavior, make amends and repair harm while getting students to take responsibility for their actions. It keeps students in school, reduces recidivism and provides a healthier school climate that restores and strengthens relationships.
MUHSD trained 235 staff on restorative justice at four schools, including two alternative education sites. We plan to train 225 more staff this year at two additional high schools.
The early results are very encouraging. There’s been a 42 percent reduction in suspensions in MUHSD this year and 25 fewer expulsions. Impressive reductions are seen also at Le Grand Union High School District, which has been transforming its approach to discipline since 2011-12. Merced County Office of Education is making similar strides.
And more good news could be on the way. If restorative justice policies are properly implemented and maintained, suspensions can be reduced by 20 to 40 percent in Merced County, according to a report by Human Impact Partners in partnership with Building Healthy Communities Merced and supported by MUHSD, Merced County Office of Education, the Le Grand district and Merced Organizing Project.
Fewer suspensions not only benefits students, but translate directly into cost savings for schools because school funding is based on the number of students in attendance. A 40 percent reduction in suspensions would save $120,000 for county school districts.
While the early results are encouraging, we have more work to do. Restorative justice isn’t a program, it’s a shift in culture and philosophy – ultimately changing how educators relate to students. And with any shift in culture, it will take time.
We know we need healthy discipline solutions for our students, not suspensions. We know restorative justice works. Now we must remain committed.
We are proud of the progress we’ve made to keep students in school, engaged and inspired, but we can always improve. We will continue to gather input, particularly from parents, students and families, to strive for perfection. Our students don’t merely deserve good or great, they deserve excellent.