Suspension rates decline across Sonoma County schools as socio-emotional programs increase

During classroom circle sessions at Lawrence Cook Middle School, restorative specialist Manny Morales asks students: How are you? What’s something positive in your life? What are you struggling with?

The chairs are arranged in a circle, and everyone can see each other. Some students feel awkward, others open up, laugh or cry.

“It’s about being present and focusing on listening to really understand them,” Morales said.

The focus on the social and emotional well-being of students is a cultural shift at public schools across Sonoma County, and many educators say it’s helping decrease suspensions and expulsions.

Countywide, suspension rates fell to 4.1 percent last year, compared to 4.6 percent the previous year, according to data recently released by the California Department of Education. Statewide, rates decreased from 3.6 to 3.5 percent.

“As more and more districts are working on socio-emotional curriculum, I think you see the impact of it,” Sonoma County Superintendent Steve Herrington said

At Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district with around 16,000 students, suspension rates decreased from 8.1 to 6.1 percent at the secondary level, and from 2.8 to 1.3 percent at the elementary level.

“What’s happened is we have changed the mindset of what a suspension is. Going home doesn’t mean changed behavior for a student,” said Steve Mizera, the district’s assistant superintendent of student and family services.

State education rules changed in 2013, requiring “other means of corrections” before resorting to suspensions, causing schools across the state to reassess student discipline and school culture.

The Santa Rosa district increased counseling services and teacher training to recognize trauma and how to react. Additionally, behavioral intervention and restorative practices were added.

“It’s fair to say previously our reaction was a punishment reaction,” Mizera said.

Hector Soto, assistant principal at Lawrence Cook, believes restorative justice, which calls for dialogue and teaching empathy skills before resorting to punitive measures, has the most impact on reducing suspension rates.

“From a logistical standpoint, rather than assign a student a suspension for a first-time offense, as an assistant principal I’m given another option,” Soto said.

Morales, a restorative specialist for four years, leads different kinds of circles, or meetings, with Lawrence Cook and Cesar Chavez Language Academy students, depending on the situation.

Some circles help build relationships and community within a classroom, while others prevent altercations from escalating.

In “repair the harm” circles, students learn to understand a harmful situation, such as damaging school property.

“The staff and administrators have been really supportive to get cases referred to me, especially with students we feel we can work with instead of suspend,” Morales said.

If a student harasses another in person or online, both students meet with Morales for a guided conversation that typically ends with a written or verbal agreement, depending on the severity of the situation.

Students may agree to stop posting hurtful statements online, or avoid each other in the hallway or class.

“It’s supporting the students and figuring out how to regulate and self-manage,” said Morales, 31, an alumnus of Cook Middle.

Petaluma City Schools also decreased its suspension rates, from 4.1 to 3.4 percent at the high school level.

“Restorative peace is a big part of what we do,” said Dave Rose, assistant superintendent of student services.

The Cotati-Rohnert Park district saw a slight increase in suspension rates from 2016-17 to 2017-18 - from 5.5 to 5.9 percent.

But the district, which has about 5,800 students, also has restorative practices.

It also increased counseling services, as well as provides behavioral intervention support and a “digital citizenship” curriculum that teaches K-12 students about their digital footprints and online privacy.

Matt Marshall, director of student services, said improving school culture and relationships is one of the district’s goals. He believes the suspension rate will decrease in the future.

Evergreen Elementary in Rohnert Park is in its second year of implementing restorative practices. All school staff members must complete two eight-hour days of restorative training.

“If a student lags behind in math, we reteach math skills. If a students lags behind in English, we reteach English skills. Wouldn’t it be awesome to say if you break a school rule, we reteach you school rules?” Marshall said.

The Windsor school district has similar restorative practices, but also saw an increase in suspension rates, from 3.5 to 4.7 percent. Windsor High School had the most significant increase among its schools, from 3.6 to ?6.1 percent.

Drug-related suspension increased 24 percent at Windsor High School. Lisa Saxon, the district’s education services director, said the increase is the result of the school cracking down on drugs on campus.

“There was a concerted effort made by new administration to address the drug issue on a more focused and consistent basis, which included improved follow-through on investigations and issuing consequences when necessary, in addition to offering education, restorative conferences, counseling and diversion,” Saxon said.

For smaller school districts, percentage points can be a misleading way to measure suspension rates year to year.

For example, in the Healdsburg Unified School District, the number of students suspended declined between the ?2015-16 to 2016-17 school years from 80 to 77.

However, enrollment declined from 1,746 to 1,673 students, so it showed an increased suspension percentage rate - from ?2.7 to 3.6 percent.

“A few incidents can have a large effect on the rate, which would not be the case in a larger district,” Healdsburg Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel said.

From the 2016-17 to 2017-18 school year, the rate increased from 3.6 to 6 percent, or 77 to 187 total suspensions in Healdsburg.

“This is not where we want to be. Given some behavior issues last year, we knew the rate was going to be higher this year,” Vanden Heuvel said.

The Healdsburg district is in the midst of implementing restorative practices. The district also offers counseling services for students and employs a full-time behavior specialist.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or On Twitter @susanmini.

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