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.