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The boy had been caught vandalizing the Cook Middle School campus. In prior years, he would have been suspended — sent home for a few days and allowed to return school with not much more conversation about what he'd done.

But under a new pilot program at Cook, the boy was made to do something other than sit home for a few days.

He was made to work alongside the school's custodians and clean windows, scrape gum from the quad and pick up trash.

"We are trying to have consequences that make sense," said Cook Assistant Principal Linsey Gannon.

Partnering the boy with the custodians who had to clean up his vandalism and mess was a way to show the student the harm his actions caused, she said.

"You work with them, you understand what it's like," she said of the intent of the assignment.

The new discipline program at Cook is one being implemented at Elsie Allen High School and formally adopted by Santa Rosa City Schools under a new two-school pilot program starting today to revamp the way students are disciplined.

The Santa Rosa School Board approved a one-year deal with Restorative Resources, a nonprofit organization already working with Sonoma County's largest school on an expulsion alternative program.

Rather than send students home for suspensions, the restorative justice program will ask students to stay on campus, attend class and participate in a 12-week session that includes in-depth conferences with those who have been harmed by the student's actions.

The deal calls for two Restorative Resources employees to be shared between Cook Middle and Elsie Allen High School. The staff on both campuses will be trained in alternatives in how to handle disruptive students.

The $125,000 one-year cost is expected to be offset by an estimated $46,700 in increased state funding linked with student attendance as well as $100,000 in federal special education funds.

The district is also pursuing Measure O funds from the city of Santa Rosa with an eye toward expanding the program to its other middle and high schools across the district.

The Restorative Resources deal comes as district officials grapple with an existing discipline program that is largely acknowledged to be troubled.

Santa Rosa City Schools suspends middle and high school students at a rate exceeded by only three other large districts in California. The state rankings of districts with more than 10,000 students show that Santa Rosa's suspension rate is double that of Fresno Unified, three times greater than Oakland's and more than four times that of Compton's in Los Angeles County.

"We plan to start immediately," said Superintendent Socorro Shiels said of the expanded program at Cook and Elsie Allen.

School Board President Bill Carle said the district will analyze suspension and expulsion rates, but also the number of infractions on campuses, to determine if the new program is having an impact.

"We will get a fair amount of data pretty quickly," he said.

The cost of the program should not be considered in terms of monetary impact alone, he said. District analysis shows that keeping kids in school will cause an uptick in state revenue, but keeping students in class and on campus has untold value as well, Carle said.

"The concept of cost neutral really has to be weighed against not just cost but the gains in terms of (student) success and achievement," he said.

The program has been launched on an informal basis on some Santa Rosa City Schools campuses for months.

Cook Middle School officials have been working with so-called restorative justice circles in which students must confront the people — their parents, school administrators, teachers, peers — who have been harmed by their actions since last spring.

The 12-week program includes not only the confidential discussion circles, but an action plan students must follow, including writing letters of apology and doing community service.

It also includes training staff and students in strategies to deal with conflict and tension, said Zach Whelan, deputy director of Restorative Resources.

"There is a very preventive aspect to this work," he said.

Students are no longer gauging their street credentials on the length of their suspensions, Cook Principal Patti Turner said.

"It's not 'Who got the tougher punishment?' Or 'Who looks tough because you are going down that path,'" she said. "They are becoming more reflective."

Gannon said teachers are buying into the program because it gives them a chance to say their peace to students who have been disrupting class or campus activities. Sending a kid to the office left conflict open-ended, Gannon said.

"There is no closure," she said.

Gannon, who said she has always sought apologies from students who have gone astray, said at times they could feel empty. A student would return from a three-day suspension and be on their way, she said.

"It would be, 'Oh yeah, I'm sorry,' and that was it," she said. "Twelve weeks is a lot harder."

The grant funding the existing expulsion diversion program runs through 2014. The work on both the suspension and expulsion program will include analyzing both rates of disciplinary actions but also the incidents on campus that would have in year past prompted a suspension or expulsion.

"There is a strong commitment from the district and us to be collecting the data and analyzing the data...really taking seriously, does this work? What does it mean?" Whelan said.

Both Turner and Gannon said the program is already having an impact at Cook. Gannon, who oversees discipline on campus, said her role is changing under the new plan.

"I feel now like I'm doing a good job. I'm helping kids with everything, not just keeping the campus safe."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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