Davis High Vice Principal Implements Restorative Justice Approach to School Discipline

restoreThanks to the brilliant Martin Luther King Day speech by Sujatha Baliga two weeks ago, many in this community got introduced to restorative justice processes.  The use of restorative justice is actually quite unusual in a crime as serious as murder – but, in fact, it is increasingly being used in a variety of different situations.

Sheila Smith, a Vice Principal at Davis High School, recently met with Ron Claassen and his wife Roxanne Claassen, based in Fresno.  They are authors of “Discipline that Restores,” which they wrote based on principles developed jointly to apply restorative justice principles in a school setting.

Sheila Smith has been slowly implementing restorative justice principles whenever possible into peacemaking situations – anytime a conflict arises, whether it is between two students, between a student and a teacher, or even other situations as well.  In the school setting this is not only a tool for discipline, but for conflict resolution.

Ms. Smith described a recent situation that saw two students about to fight over a desk in school.  As the tension increased, one of the students pushed the desk to the floor in the middle of class.  They were about to fight when the teacher interceded and sent them to talk to Ms. Smith.

Ms. Smith, with the input of others, has developed protocol that helps to lay out the standard of practice.  In this case, the two sides sat down and talked about what happened.  One of the parties agreed to be more thoughtful in the manner of dealing with the other student.

The other student agreed that he had overreacted to a situation in which a chair was being used by a third student, a female.  They talked to the female that sat in the other chair and she agreed to be more cognizant about where she sat.

The result of this process, Ms. Smith reported, is that the situation has vastly improved.  The two students actually began to develop a relationship, where previously they had none.  There is relief that they got to work out their differences and that this did not have to result in further discipline.

Sheila Smith made it clear that this is not a way to avoid discipline nor does she consider it a “soft” approach.  However, at the same time, she believes that only relying on punitive measures often exacerbates the problem.

She believes it is essential to sit down and talk and deal with a person who has been wronged directly.  She calls this “a high level thing to do.”

At the same time, this does not negate punitive measures.  She said that they have to honor the district’s progressive discipline code that, for some offenses, calls for an automatic 3 to 5 day suspension.

However, engaging in the restorative justice process can reduce the suspension if Ms. Smith is convinced that the causes of the problem have been dealt with.

“There are times when we’ve lessened the punishment,” Ms. Smith said, “lowered the suspension to two days.  Taking kids out of school is not the ideal way to handle things.  I would rather teach students to treat each other with peaceful respect.”

Ron and Roxanne Claassen came to Davis in early January to meet with Sheila Smith, as well as with Pam Mari and Kate Snow.

Following that meeting, the Claassens agreed to sit down for an interview with the Vanguard.

“What we found is that when people start to look at and hear about the concept of restorative justice as opposed to simply punitive justice, that all have had experience with the fact that punitive doesn’t work very well,” Mr. Claassen said.  “So the idea that there are some real live options is exciting.  Even some people who have been most opposed at some point often turn out to be some of the strongest advocates.”

Mr. Claassen said that he had already founded the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies when his wife, an eighth grade teacher, came home and said the structure of discipline in the schools is very similar to the structure of the criminal justice system.

Mr. Claassen is the Director of the Restorative Discipline Project and Professor of Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, Fresno Pacific School of Education. He has served as a teacher, pastor, consultant, trainer and mediator in church, business, school, criminal justice and other settings. He is co-founder of the Center for Peacemaking and Conflict Studies, as noted above, and founder of Fresno VORP (Victim Offender Reconciliation Program).

Restorative justice in the classroom, he said, does not mean that things are let go or that chaos is allowed to rule.  It begins with the concept that whatever response there is going to be to misbehavior is going to be a constructive response.

“What we’ve been working at is developing a series of options so that,” he said, if one approach does not work, they have alternatives.  “It is all to work in the direction of the student accepting personal responsibility for what they’ve been doing and thinking about how they want to move forward.”

“When there has been an infraction it can be a process for how you repair that infraction,” he said.

This includes three basic concepts: recognizing what happened, not necessarily always agreeing, and at least giving the other person the chance to share their perception of what happened.

Once this exchange takes place, they look toward a resolution on the restoration of equity and clarifying how you would move forward in the future.

Equity would be a mutually agreed upon way of addressing what has happened – it might be through deeds, perhaps monetary restitution, or an apology.

“A lot of the restorative equity happens in the process of a person actually being willing to, first of all, just acknowledge how the person experienced it,” he said.

There also have to be agreements as to what they are going to do in the future.

“People who are extremely upset at each other walk away at the end of it saying, okay we’ve taken care of this.”

One of the misperceptions is that a student cannot be forced or compelled to participate in this process.  It is a question of giving them the option.

“I use a visual to help them understand what their options are,” he explained.

The visual depicts a scenario where someone tells someone what to do, where someone on the outside makes the decision, or where the student is part of the process of deciding how to rectify the situation.

“If you show this to a person and say, hey look, somehow we have to deal with this issue, which way would you prefer?  ” he said.  “And what do you think most people would say?”

He said consistently people opt to be included in the process to determine how to handle an issue.

“That’s the first step to buy-in, because they’ve now said… I’m willing to look for something that will work for both of us,” Mr. Claassen explained.

By the time they have gone through all of the steps, he said, “You have buy-in or the person will back out somewhere along the way.  It’s not very likely because they are the ones creating (the process).”

He said that when a judge orders restitution, the percentage of defendants who actually pay that restitution in full and the percentage of that restitution that typically gets paid are very low.

“When people go through this process and… they end up in an agreement,” he said it’s 90% that gets paid.  He believes that you are comparing that to perhaps 35% to 40% in the most traditional manner.

“That’s just to illustrate that when people make agreements, the likelihood of them keeping the agreement is much higher because they helped make the agreement,” he said.  That’s different than someone in authority telling them what to do.

Ron Claassen said, “This is especially effective with the kids who are often now being expelled or suspended.”

He said, in his experience, this has been effective with kids coming from disadvantaged backgrounds and even broken homes, who have never had these kinds of options before.

Moreover, he said, many of the parents begin to feel empowered because, instead of a punishment imposed on their kids, they are able to be part of the process to resolve the issue.

Ron Claassen then told of an example of teacher who had a difficult time with one of her students who disrupted her class.  She came to a restorative justice process as a last resort.  She did not believe in it – she said that she was an authoritarian and that approach has worked for her.

She told Mr. Claassen that she thought she would use this approach to prove that it doesn’t work.  She had a student teacher and when the student disrupted the class, she would pull him out and the student teacher would take over.

When this occurred, she showed him the model and said that, while she was supposed to advocate for the restorative approach, it was his choice as to how to proceed.

“She said he didn’t hesitate a second (he chose the restorative option) and she said that really made me mad,” Mr. Claassen recalled.  “She said, if he’s so cooperative now, why hasn’t he been so cooperative all year long?”

She then read him the ground rules and he agreed to them.  They listened to each other and then summarized what each one said.

He started.  She described, “He said you talk too fast and I can’t keep up and when I mess around it gives me a better chance.”

She said she was upset, “How could it be so simple?”  She then summarized what he said and he agreed.

Then it was her turn, “She said, I prepare a lesson every day.  I get there to teach the lesson.  I get started.  You start doing what you do.  I’m never able to finish the lesson.  It’s been cheating you, it’s been cheating all of the other students because I can’t really do the lesson the way I’d like to do.”

She told him that when he’s absent, her day is much easier.  She said that she didn’t like that.

They agreed that the other had listened.  They came up with a plan.  She would slow down and if she did not slow down enough they would have a signal between them.  If she still was not going slow enough, they would spend individual time together.

After that they not only apologized to each other, they each apologized to the whole class.

She told Mr. Claassen, “He’s the person I used to have my stomach turn as soon as he walked into the door.  Now I enjoy seeing him.”

However, these situations do not always work, of course.  Sheila Smith told the Vanguard that there was one incident where there was a school-related crime.  The family had hired an attorney for the student dealing with the criminal justice system.

Sheila Smith believed that a restorative conference would be a good approach.  But the attorney would not allow it because the court had not yet heard the matter and that made it impossible for the student to admit doing harm.

She said that, to this day, the father regrets that the student was unable to participate in the process.

Ms. Smith argues that she has not seen it done to avoid punishment.  She believes that actually dealing with the person is harder than simply being sent home from school.

She said that the parties agree to check in again after a period of time and she said she not seen recidivism with those involved in the process.

She said that the protocol they develop makes it difficult not to be genuine.

Some cases have gone better than others.  She relayed a story about one parent who got so angry that his daughter had been wronged.  She had concerns that the conference could get ugly and that he may not be able to move forward.

But when they finally sat down, he was able to move forward and something very positive came out of the experience.

Sheila Smith said that, while she has done most of the restorative conferences, the other Vice Principals are completely on board with the process.

In early January they met with Ron and Roxanne Claassen to help further develop their program.

“In this case we came in simply to listen initially,” he said.  “What we listened to was all the good things that were already happening.”

“Then we did some brainstorming about what would be the next steps, if you want to do them,” he said.  “One of the things we talked about a fair amount initially is are we talking about a program or are we talking about an approach.”

“They’re very different,” he said.  “One looks at a whole cultural shift.  And I think it has to be an approach not a program.  It’s not simply a program we put in and we’ve done it.”

Sheila Smith wants to see this grow and not just be about Davis High, but to include other schools and include adults and students in the process.

She said that she has already had talks with Jonathan Raven, the Chief Deputy District Attorney.

“We need to get the District Attorney and Public Defender’s offices on board,” she said.  Her goal is to keep the students out of the criminal justice system and she believes the restorative justice approach is a good way to do just that.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Mr Obvious

    I look forward to seeing this occur in Davis. I think the example of the kids fighting over a desk is either a bad example or poorly explained. Why does a third student who wasn’t involved have to be more cognizant of where she sits? Was she supposed to predict these two testosterone charged boys were going to fight near her location?

  2. JimmysDaughter

    This process needs to be implemented in day care and in elementary school. Thanks for such a positive article to start the week. I wish this had been in place when my son went to Davis High.

  3. Ryan Kelly

    As long as the School Administrator, Pamela Mari, is not involved, I can see this working. Ms. Mari would have suspended the kids in the example you give.

  4. JustSaying

    This is the place to get going on restorative justice concepts, or maybe earlier.

    I just came across the best restorative justice example ever for a death-inflicting crime:[quote]“[b]BP Pleads Guilty to Manslaughter in Gulf Oil Spill[/b] (and agreed/sentenced to pay $4-billion to ‘resolve’ the fatal crimes)”[/quote]The Justice Department has gotten engaged in RJ in the Wall Street/banking fraud as well, preferring to accept cash for corporate convictions in exchange for not indicting and jailing any of those responsible for the outrageous, illegal behavior. Restorative, partly. Justice, hardly.

  5. JustSaying

    , albeit off-topic. I’d just read about how BP pleaded guilty to 11 counts of manslaughter and resolved it with corporate money. It was weighing on me and I thought you’d appreciate considering how justice varies for different classes in this country.

    I read everything you write before I make any comments, sometimes several times if it confuses me . (I don’t suggest that you haven’t taken the trouble to read my comments when you return with some goofy response or unreasonable disagreement.)

    I agreed with instituting the program at DHS and think the techniques could be tried in our j-highs as well .

  6. JustSaying

    That’s weird. My “sarcasm” and “fact” labels disappeared, likely because I used left/right symbols that your site won’t accept. The first word was “sarcasm” and I’d labeled two sentences as “fact”–that I read everything and that I support the DHS initiative.

    (I tried to use these two symbols: >>>>>>>

  7. David M. Greenwald

    Those symbols are read as code. I’m not clear here – are you being sarcastic when you conflate the plea deal in the oil spill with some sort of notion of restorative justice?

  8. JustSaying

    Yes. Obviously you didn’t find it quite as humorous (and as outrageous a development) as I thought you would.


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