The Santa Barbara Unified School District’s restorative discipline program has resulted in a significant drop in student suspensions for participating schools, and staff say the positive effects go far beyond that data.

“You come on the campus and you can see a more positive, respectful and responsible culture,” said David Ortiz, principal of La Colina Junior High School.

“It’s a philosophy, a philosophical intervention of a more responsive nature instead of a reactive perspective,” he said.

The program works in tandem with the traditional discipline system, and the criteria for suspensions and expulsions haven’t changed.

Building relationships between students and staff members is at the core of the program, which expanded to include nine schools this year.

“It’s working out great,” Santa Barbara Junior High School Principal Lito Garcia said. “It has definitely allowed us as a teaching staff to take the time to work with kids.

“I think really that’s the main reason behind the reduction in suspensions, is that the students are feeling more connected to the staff, feeling more ownership for their education and wanting to do well because of it.”

SBUSD trustees are concerned with the suspension rates for secondary schools, which — compared to total enrollment — are disproportionately high for socio-economically disadvantaged students and Hispanic or Latino students. They were glad to hear that numbers were heading in the right direction, with suspensions falling across the board.

Superintendent Dave Cash has called the restorative discipline program a “game changer.”

Among the schools that implemented restorative approaches last year, there was a 39-percent drop in total suspensions compared to the six-year average, said Aaron Harkey, a teacher on special assignment to manage the district’s program.

According to district data, the six-year average was 630 suspensions per year, with Hispanic or Latino students accounting for 81 percent of them.

For the 2013-2014 year, there were 387 total suspensions — 78 percent of which were Hispanic or Latino students. Hispanic or Latino students represented 55 percent of enrollment at those schools.

“We could just not suspend on a superficial level and say we’re doing better,” Ortiz said. “What’s better is all of us are evolving as better citizens within the school community and community at large in Santa Barbara.”

Santa Barbara Junior High, which has two full years of experience with the restorative approaches program, showed a 71-percent drop in suspensions for the 2013-2014 year, compared to its five-year average from before, Harkey said.

“Since implementation of restorative approaches at Santa Barbara Junior High, Latino representation in all suspensions decreased from an average of 87 percent in previous years to 73 percent in both implementation years,” Harkey said during a recent presentation to the Board of Trustees.

“The numbers, they’re great, they’re impressive,” Garcia said. “I am proud to see we’ve dropped the suspension rate by over 71 percent, that means over 71 percent more kids are in school.

“But there is more work to do, and I think as a district, one of our charges from Dr. Cash that we all believe in is to be culturally proficient, in the classroom with instruction and in social-emotional work with kids, across the board.”

The restorative approaches program started at Santa Barbara Junior High School in the 2012-2013 school year and expanded to Goleta Valley, La Colina and La Cumbre junior highs and Santa Barbara High School last year. This fall, Cleveland and Washington elementary schools and Dos Pueblos and San Marcos high schools were added.

Restorative approaches focus on a new perspective on discipline and the five Rs: respect, responsibility, repair, relationships and reintegration. When a problem arises, teachers rely on five questions to determine the problem, what harm was done and how it can be repaired.

Some schools have pursued these ideas on their own, but the benefit to a top-down restorative program is that schools have a common language now so it’s easier for students to know the expectations, Garcia said.

“I say it sarcastically, but what a crazy idea,” he said. “We’re teaching kids how to solve problems and be part of the solution. We’re in the business of education and we’re doing that every day with math, science, English and history, so why shouldn’t we be doing it with social issues?”

As the program expands to more schools, it can only make it better for everyone, Garcia said.

“I can’t wait to have kids start rolling in with restorative approaches under their belt,” he added. “My hope is as we have more and more students going through this experience, this eventually will spread out into the community at large.”

The restorative approaches program isn’t the easiest way to do things, but it’s the most effective, Ortiz said.

“You can still incur disciplinary consequences and still go through a restorative approach, the dialog and informal conference to formal conference,” he said. “​But the idea is that we’re going to stay with the person and care about them, support and guide them over time.”

Students may have issues with their home lives that manifest in inappropriate behavior at school, and teachers and staff become more aware of that by talking to students one-on-one, Ortiz continued.

“I’m so proud of our district and schools, but I’m going to be honest with you — many, many of our students are just incredible, caring, respectful, responsible citizens,” he said. “I wish I could take more credit. I just can’t go there because we have these kids who are just amazing.”

Noozhawk news editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at