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Some Santa Rosa schools explore alternatives to student suspensions

Somewhere in the midst of the boy's apologies, his promise to straighten out his life and his acknowledgment that smoking pot and ditching class had caused harm for others and not just himself, his father began to cry.

"He was heartbroken," the boy said, remembering the look on his father's face. "They raised me better than this."

The confrontation between father and son was not a private talk behind closed doors but an exchange in front of an audience of school administrators, teachers and strangers who agreed to participate in a restorative justice conference with the boy who was on the brink of expulsion from high school.

"I saw parents that were highly affected by his behaviors. I saw a Hispanic father cry, which you don't see very often," said special education teacher Trish Delzell. "I saw a mom be at a loss of words — the potential to lose their child."

The conference was led by counselors from Restorative Resources, a nonprofit organization working on a select number of Santa Rosa City Schools campuses and paid for with grant funding. The group works with students and administrators to keep kids on campus to face what they have done and make amends for their wrongdoing.

The student, caught in November after having smoked marijuana, went through the restorative justice process this school year.

The sophomore at a Santa Rosa high school did not want his name used but agreed to share his history of suspensions and how he worked his way back from the brink of expulsion.

It was assistant principal Tim Zalunardo who confronted the student first. On a November day, the boy was clearly under the influence so he was taken to the office and his father was called. He was put on immediate suspension and the expulsion process was set in motion.

But Zalunardo, a member of the school district's newly formed task force to study positive student behavior interventions, asked the teen to participate in the 12-week restorative justice program. There was no promise of how his expulsion order would be affected.

"We are trying to do things different than in the past," Zalunardo said. "You can't suspend and expel your way out of the problem. You have to look at student behavior, see what they are doing wrong and keep them accountable."


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