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.