Last October, after the Santa Rosa City Council approved funding to introduce restorative practices in schools, The Press Democrat ran an editorial that stated, "Spending $125,000 on a one-year pilot program is a lot to ask — especially for the Santa Rosa City Schools District. But in this case, it's money well spent."

The problem was easy to see. Santa Rosa schools were suspending and expelling students at a much higher rate than most schools in the state. In fact, in the 2011-12 year, Santa Rosa schools had the fourth highest rate of suspensions per capita in the state.

Eager to find a different approach to school discipline, the Santa Rosa school board did its research and wanted to implement restorative justice, a nationally recognized method of conflict resolution that often involves meeting in restorative circles — with victims, offenders, students, teachers, parents and administrators — in an effort to repair the harm, make amends and get to the very core of the problem.

With roots in African and Native American tribal circles, it's a process that has worked well in schools in Oakland, Portland, Denver, Chicago and Baltimore.

With the new funding, Restorative Resources — a Santa Rosa nonprofit and pioneer in restorative justice — was able to implement pilot programs at Elsie Allen High School and Cook Middle School.

Now, with the school year having ended, it's worth looking back at exactly what the programs achieved.

In the 2013-14 school year, Restorative Resources served 219 students in suspension diversion program and 188 students in expulsion diversion programs.

At Elsie Allen High School, suspensions were down 60 percent, with 25 suspensions this year compared to 62 suspensions in 2012-13.

When we talked to Elsie Allen principal Mary Gail Stablein, she was very honest about initial perceptions on campus. "Some people thought it was going to be the fuzzy-wuzzy approach, and we were all going to sit around and have counseling. But it really wasn't like that. It's a very structured way of asking pointed questions. When everybody takes the time to listen, great things happen."

At Cook Middle School, suspensions were down 67 percent, with 27 suspensions in 2013-14 compared to 82 suspensions in 2012-13.

But the reduction in suspensions and expulsions was not limited to these two schools. It was part of a districtwide trend that added up to huge suspension and expulsion reductions this year and a total savings of more than $550,000 in ADA (average daily attendance) money.

The savings in suspension diversion in 2013-14 amounted to $340,976. This school year, 1,863 students were suspended for 3,558 days at a cost of $304,173 in lost ADA money. In the 2012-13 school year, 3,206 students were suspended for 7,546.5 days at cost of $645,150.

The savings from expulsion diversion in 2013-14 amounted to $213,840. This year, only three students were expelled at a cost of $40,920. In the 2012-13 school year, 53 students were expelled at cost of $254,760.

Looking back on the school year, Santa Rosa school board President Bill Carle put it very simply, "The impact of restorative justice on Santa Rosa schools has been astounding."

Restorative practices in Santa Rosa schools have been such a success that last month the Santa Rosa City Council approved $160,000 in new Measure O funding to further expand restorative justice programs in Santa Rosa schools next year, including in elementary schools — a program we can't wait to start planning.

But there's much more to this than just numbers and dollars. It's about a community embracing its own children instead of pushing them away. It's about trying to fix problems instead of rushing to punish. It's about trying to break the schools-to-prison pipeline — a well-documented downward spiral where kids who are repeatedly suspended and expelled early on in their school careers can often wind up in juvenile hall and prison down the road.

At this point, we're just starting what will hopefully become a countywide restorative program in schools. We'd like to thank the community for taking a chance on this process and for getting behind it.

We all got into this business to work with kids. This is about students growing up and learning to work through their problems. As one young student at Cook Middle School told us, "Last year, I never talked to any of the staff members. But now I feel like I can talk a lot more with them and share."

<i>Susan Kinder is executive director of Restorative Resources in Santa Rosa.</i>