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Restorative Justice Discipline Program Gains Foothold at Santa Barbara Junior High

School district's pilot project ushers in new era of behavior responsibilities and responses

Santa Barbara Junior High School is taking a new approach to ensuring student behavior this year, becoming the first campus to implement the Santa Barbara Unified School District’s recently adopted “restorative justice”-based model of student discipline.

In January, the school board voted to implement the program after a report revealed high truancy and suspension rates in the district, and chose Santa Barbara Junior High for the pilot project. Restorative justice is a method of discipline that emphasizes communicating with everyone who is affected by an incident to better understand the motivation and how it can be prevented in the future.

Under the program, based on a model implemented by Denver Public Schools, teachers choose from administrative, restorative or therapeutic approaches to discipline based on the severity and nature of the infraction. Officials say restorative justice programs have become increasingly popular in school districts as a result of studies that link the philosophy to improved safety and academic performance.

Last month, Santa Barbara Junior High brought in two Denver Public Schools trainers for two full days of instruction for teachers, counselors and administrators learning how to use the new discipline approach.

Lito Garcia, principal of the school at 721 E. Cota St., said restorative justice will make disciplining students much more time-intensive, but he is hopeful that the extra time spent will eventually be rewarded with a decrease in student incidents. According to Garcia, a major flaw in the conventional discipline system is that disciplinary responses are intended to punish students, but do not necessarily fix the underlying problem behind the actions so students tend to get in trouble again and again.

“The biggest piece of it is that we are slowing down and taking the time to find out why things happen — what led up to whatever the incident may be,” he said. “So then we can help students who did something wrong by teaching them how it impacted the school community.

“We are not abandoning (conventional disciplinary measures) but if a student is suspended we are going to take more time to make sure these issues do not occur again. That is key.”

Garcia said teachers are the primary facilitators of the new system, and school administrators and counselors will get involved only when necessary.

“It works in degrees, so we are asking that the teachers work with the students and if it’s something that needs to be bumped up the ladder to an administrator or a counselor, then we will be involved as well,” he said. “We have basically a pyramid where we work through various steps and then as we go through it, we have more and more people involved.”

Seventh-grade science teacher Mark Croshaw, who has been at SBJHS for 18 years, said he hopes the model will foster better communication between teachers and students.

“The old process was more about crime and punishment,” he said. “It wasn’t about why the crime happened and who it harmed. The old school way was less personal whereas this way is much more personal. You want to try to find out the who, what, when and why, and help them integrate and grow back into their world.”

Teacher Aaron Harkey said the new policy is more of a philosophy than a discipline program — one that emphasizes creating a mutual channel of communication between students and staff. He said it’s important for teachers to remember that part of the responsibility of teaching is creating an atmosphere in which students are able to learn successfully. To do so, he said, teachers must be open to listening to students and trying to understand their experience.

“Our job is to educate these kids and provide a safe environment for them to get an education,” he said. “A big part of that is establishing a relationship between the teachers and students and making sure no students feel alienated.”

Harkey said students have reacted positively to the new program, which was introduced in last week’s lesson plans as the new school year began. He said eighth-graders especially have noticed a dramatic shift in the staff’s attitude toward discipline.

“Already, we have been rolling out this message and students are responding in a positive way,” Harkey said. “Our staff is very excited about the philosophy — super jazzed. I’m hearing from teachers about five times a day how they have substituted restorative approaches for traditional approaches and how successful it’s been. I think it is already making a huge difference.”

If the program proves to be successful, the next step will be expanding it to Santa Barbara High School and eventually to the rest of the district. Croshaw said he is excited to see how the program plays out and has high hopes for its success.

“I truly believe that it’s a great program,” he said. “I think we all have that feeling, and it’s just a matter of time to see how awesome it really is.”

Noozhawk intern Patrick Kulp can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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