More Sonoma County schools turn to alternative discipline to reduce suspensions

Jamie Dorvilus wiggled in her seat, eagerly waiting her turn to talk about how? ? she was feeling that day.

At least once a week, her first-grade class at Rohnert Park’s Evergreen Elementary School moves the desks out of the way for a “circle,” where they discuss their feelings and worries and practice positive behavior and communication skills, like giving and accepting compliments.

Dorvilus, 7, said it’s safe to share. No one ever teases.

“It’s the only time I get to say something and nobody can laugh at me or tell me something that makes me feel bad,” she said.

The so-called restorative circles aim to build trust and understanding and reduce misbehavior. They’re popping up in schools all over the county, in part from the efforts of agencies like Restorative Resources and the Sonoma County Office of Education, which have trained educators on these practices.

Jamie’s teacher, Mandy Hilliard, said kids facing problems at home or on the playground can vent in the circles. The problems then don’t spill into their schoolwork.

“It helps them concentrate more,” Hilliard said. “(And) it makes me more sensitive to what’s going on with the students.”

Hilliard was one of several teachers on campus trained by Restorative Resources, which is rolling out a similar program at 45 middle schools countywide, including the Cotati-Rohnert Park School District.

The Santa Rosa nonprofit last year received $100,000 from the county to launch the alternative justice program. It was one of the recommendations issued by the Community and Local Law Enforcement Taskforce formed after the 2013 shooting of 13-year-old Andy Lopez, who, at the time of his death, was involved in a similar program.

Susan Kinder, the agency’s executive director, said county officials realized improving the relationship between the community and law enforcement required working in schools to reduce suspensions and expulsions - goals set by the state through the Local Control and Accountability Plan that each district develops as part of its overall vision for students. Suspended students are more likely to drop out of school and enter the criminal justice system.

“It’s a good age to start working with them,” Kinder said. “They’re more impressionable.”

Middle school also is more stressful: Kids take on more schoolwork, they’re more self-conscious and more concerned about fitting in.

“Expulsion and suspension activity begin in sixth, seventh and eighth grade,” Kinder said.

It’s is a challenging time, but there’s little intervention for middle schoolers, said Oscar Chavez, the county’s human services assistant director who sat on the task force and helped develop the program.

The accountability circles will serve as an alternative to suspension and expulsion.

Instead of being sent home, middle schoolers take part in weekly sessions where they discuss their feelings and harm they’ve done. They’ll also get to meet with victims, such as school administrators, fellow students and parents in efforts to make amends.

“Once you kick a kid out of a classroom, that creates a disruption,” Chavez said. “If we can change school culture to be more responsive to adapting a more restorative framework, that is a win-win.”

The task force looked to Santa Rosa City Schools as its model.

The district first rolled the program out in the spring of 2014 at Elsie Allen High and Cook Middle School, where Lopez once attended. Suspensions at Elsie Allen had dropped by 60 percent that year, Kinder previously wrote in a newspaper opinion piece.

The Sonoma County Office of Education also used the $100,000 grant from the county to expand restorative practices beyond Santa Rosa.

It formed the Restorative Culture Collaborative, which brought together 20 middle and high schools to address their students’ social-emotional needs and explore strategies that could promote equity, empathy and engagement on their campuses. Many trained all faculty and staff in restorative practices, said Jessica Progulske, the SCOE work-based learning coordinator who led the collaborative.

“Schools are really trying to do the best they can by their students,” she said. “We got to know who the kids are and what their stories are to be able to teach.”

Not all agree with the practices. Critics argue the process allows kids to get away with bad behavior.

However, Matt Marshall, the Cotati-Rohnert Park schools’ student services director, said students learn valuable lessons when the process is done right. They must take responsibility and face those they’ve harmed.

“That is a difficult thing for people to do, even for adults,” said Marshall, who used to be a principal in Santa Rosa. “Restorative (practices) take a lot of training. It’s not something that a school can wave a magic wand and do.”

He’s looking to train all Evergreen faculty and staff members next year, including those on playground duty, so they implement restorative practices schoolwide. He’d like to see the entire district trained.

“The restorative model done correctly has lasting impacts not only for the student, but for the campus cultures,” he said.

Dorvilus said she hopes to continue to take part in circles in future grades. She finds courage listening to her classmates.

“After I share my feelings, I forget about everything bad that happens to me,” Dorvilus said. “I really want to do a circle with my mom and my family.”

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