Zac Good first got a taste for stealing in middle school. A self-described screwed-up and troubled child, the Santa Rosa teen started smoking, getting in fights and engaging in competitions for who could steal the most from local stores, just for the hell of it.
“We were jerks to everyone,” admits the 18-year-old Santa Rosa High School student. “It gave us something to do that wasn’t sitting around being bored. I was always acting out.”
He got away with the petty theft and violence for a while—until his junior year, when two administrators suddenly pulled him out of sixth-period culinary class. They’d received a report that he was carrying a knife. Not just any knife, mind you; Good was carrying a four-and-a-half-inch switchblade (along with a second knife and a pack of cigarettes), a zero-tolerance violation that merited expulsion from his Northeast Santa Rosa high school.
He spent three days in juvenile hall and faced a possible misdemeanor charge for having a switchblade longer than two inches. After his release, he received a letter in the mail from an organization called Restorative Resources, asking him if he’d be willing to undertake a 12-week program—also called an accountability circle—in life skills like empathy, compassion, anger management and decision-making. If he completed the program successfully, he could circumvent the juvenile justice court system. Good agreed to give it a try.
“The program covered stuff I knew but didn’t take seriously,” says the thin, dark-haired teen, wearing jeans and a black hoodie, a silver class ring glinting on his hand. Halfway through the circle, in group work with other teens that had gotten into trouble, his mindset began to shift. He started thinking of his little brother, who was 10 at the time.
“I began thinking about how my decisions would affect my brother, and it was really embarrassing for me,” he says. Then he started considering his parents, his teachers and his friends, and how any decision he made, bad or good, affected not only those people but also everyone they interacted with. He wrote letters acknowledging the pain that he caused his parents, his brother, the teacher in his culinary class, the arresting officer, the school administrators that caught him and even his girlfriend at the time. He says writing the letters helped him process the importance of making amends for his actions.
“It’s this wake-up call that sticks with you,” Good explains. “By the end of the program, you realize that your action was entirely your fault. Responsibility is the first lesson.”
Good graduated from the Restorative Resources program in December 2012, and started to turn his life around. He stopped smoking and stealing. He went back to high school (a different one) where his GPA rose from 1.7 to 3.8. He got his driver’s license and found an after-school job. He earned the rank of Eagle Scout, which he calls “his proudest achievement in life.”
Whereas Good hadn’t given any thought to the future before, he now plans to attend the culinary program at Santa Rosa Junior College before earning a business degree—all part of his plan to eventually open a ’50s-style soda fountain similar to one his family once owned in San Jose.
“Before, I didn’t care about the future,” Good says, “and now I’m thinking about how I can go out and be in the world.”
Restorative justice has gained much ground in the United States, especially as data increasingly shows that the zero-tolerance approach favored since Columbine is not only ineffective but discriminatory toward minority and disabled students. A new joint report issued by the U.S. departments of Justice and Education, based on data collected by the Civil Rights Data Collection, explicitly states that black and Latino students in U.S. schools have been more heavily disciplined than their peers. The report provides a set of guiding principles that would move districts away from zero tolerance and into a “wide range of strategies to reduce misbehavior and maintain a safe learning environment, including conflict resolution and restorative practices.”
Restorative justice programs in the United States have grown exponentially since 2005, according to Thalia González, a professor at Occidental College and expert in restorative practices. Rather than handing out blanket punishments to offenders, the practice requires them to take responsibility for their actions and to make amends—think of a circle instead of a straight line out the door. Unlike punitive tactics, restorative justice emphasizes reparation, accountability and the web of relationships that make up a school and greater community, with the ultimate goal of preventing a reccurrence of the behavior in the future.
Karym Sanchez, 23, manages the Accountability Circle Program at Restorative Resources in Santa Rosa. He has also chaired the North Bay Organizing Project’s education task force since 2012, which has been vocal and active in support of bringing restorative justice to Santa Rosa City Schools. At the Restorative Resources office, located in a modest office suite near the Empire College campus, Sanchez speaks with a maturity beyond his years about how his own background as an at-risk, troubled youth who was able to turn his life around—something that he credits to concerned teachers and exposure to social justice thinkers like Howard Zinn—informs his work with youth aged 12 to 17 in the accountability circles.
“True justice has to come from a place of love,” Sanchez says. “If it comes from a place of vengeance, there’s no true healing. There’s very little you get out of asking for vengeance. I truly believe it has to come from a place of love, especially for youth, who pick up these subtle messages. When you tell them, ‘Get out of here, we don’t want you in our schools anymore,’ the youth think, ‘These schools hate me, my teachers hate me, everybody’s out to get me.’ But when you remind them, ‘No, we love you and we need you here,’ it speaks volumes.”
The 12-week program ends with a talking circle, or conference, that brings together the offender, community volunteers and those affected by the crime, who together come up with a list of amends. These can take the form of letters, speaking to younger kids about their actions or attending enrichment activities that help them get involved in something outside of themselves.
Restorative justice has been used in the criminal justice system for years, and school districts in Portland, Oakland, Chicago and Denver have already started implementing the process as a way to completely restructure a flawed and often discriminatory discipline system.
It’s a challenge that the Santa Rosa City School District is taking seriously.
That’s good news, considering the bleak district discipline statistics released last year. In 2011, the district suspended 4,587 students, a number exceeded by only three other large districts in California. More disconcerting, a disproportionate number of the students facing disciplinary action were nonwhite. Out of 256 students expelled in 2011, 127 were Latino, 56 white, 18 black, 14 Native American and 41 multiple-race. The suspensions and expulsions translate not only to hundreds of thousands of lost state funding as students miss days of school, it can lead to even more serious repercussions for individual youth as they get funneled into what’s often called the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“From the moment I arrived, the [Santa Rosa City Schools] Board was clear in their belief that there needed to be a fresh look at student behavior and family and community engagement in schools, including but not limited to discipline practices,” explains Santa Rosa City Schools superintendent Socorro Shiels via email.
On Sept. 10, before an audience of about a hundred people at a rousing education forum organized by the North Bay Organizing Project, Shiels spoke out in favor of restorative justice. On the heels of her blessing, the Santa Rosa City Schools Board approved funding for a $125,000 pilot restorative justice program in mid-September, to be implemented immediately at Cook Middle School and Elsie Allen High School.
So far, it seems to be working better than anyone could have imagined.
‘Far and away, the results have been greater than anybody anticipated,” says Santa Rosa City Schools Board of Education president Bill Carle. At a board meeting last November, the data for Cook Middle School showed 82 suspensions between Aug. 14 and Nov. 1 for the 2012–2013 school year, in comparison to only 27 suspensions for the same time period in 2013–2014. That’s a
67 percent reduction. At Elsie Allen, the numbers were down
Carle says that normally the board will see 30 to 40 suspensions or expulsions by the first winter session in early December. At the time of our conversation in late 2013, the board had yet to see one disciplinary case come before them, and “that has absolutely never happened,” says Carle.
Not only are kids remaining in school and in class, but the savings in average daily attendance (ADA) California state funding in this same period of time has reached $139, 357, according to the same data presented to the school board. The number is a combination of daily ADA and staff savings—for example, the savings when a vice principal doesn’t have to take two or three hours out of a day, at $58 per hour, to prepare for and attend disciplinary hearings.
But, Carle says, beyond the savings potential (and that’s money that can then be invested in vibrant school programs and materials instead of discipline issues), he’s impressed by the life skills being taught to kids that “generally [aren’t] in the curriculum,” as well as the development of a sense of community that wasn’t there before.
“The students are looking at, ‘What are the consequences of my actions, and what affect do they have on other people?'” he explains. “I think it has such an emotional long-term value. Intuitively, we are learning that kids will stay in school longer, and there will be a certain level of personal growth that’s helpful as well.”
Carle does point out that more serious disciplinary cases, such as the incident at Elsie Allen where a student stabbed a teacher with a mechanical pencil, would still go the traditional disciplinary route.
Rob Halverson is research and program development manager with the Sonoma County Probation Department. He and deputy chief probation officer David Koch worked on restorative justice in Multnomah County in Oregon, in the Parkrose School District and then Portland Public Schools, for 10 years before coming to Sonoma County. (Koch spoke in favor of a restorative justice pilot program at a Santa Rosa City school board meeting last spring.) Halverson recalls his time working with the Parkrose School District in Oregon, how the administration was able to avoid 200 missed days of school—a figure that translates directly into budget savings—due to the implementation of restorative practices.
“It’s a strategy that gains seat time for kids in school,” Halverson tells me. “It keeps them connected and keeps them on track.”
If anyone has a sense of the negative repercussions of suspensions and expulsions on youth, it’s the probation department. Halverson says that he and Koch are “really interested in interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline.”
“When kids disconnect from school, that’s a risk factor that stacks up against them in a number of ways,” he explains. “Some of those kids end up involved in the justice system.” A restorative approach provides not only an alternative to exclusionary discipline, but also a prevention strategy for keeping kids connected to school while developing a crime-free path to adulthood and out of the justice system, adds Halverson. “If you have a few experiences with being suspended or expelled, your chances of graduating are far less, and that’s not good for people developing on a successful trajectory.”
For Sam Blechel, 17, this theory has proven to be on point.
‘It sounds kind of bad,” the Santa Rosa High School junior tells me during a conversation at a local coffee shop, “but if I’d never stolen shoes from Sears, I would not be active in the community today.” As he talks, Blechel leans forward urgently, half-stumbling to find the right words to capture the effect restorative justice has had on his life.
Blechel’s story could have ended much differently, possibly even with a stint in juvenile hall and probation time. A sophomore at the time, he was caught by store security with a pair of shoes in his backpack, stolen for a friend, he says. A few days later, he received a letter from Restorative Resources. At first, he didn’t see the point. Why couldn’t he just do some kind of one-day class, something quick that he could knock out, forget about and go back to the way things were?
“At the beginning, I thought it was kind of stupid because they were a bunch of life skills that I already knew about,” explains Blechel, tugging at the sleeve of a long-sleeved red shirt worn with faded jeans and black Converse, “but after a while, it really helped me to find myself, to become part of the community, to become more in sync.”
“Before, I would see someone walking down the street, and they would be a stranger to me,” he says. “Now when I see someone walking down the street, I see them as a neighbor. They’re just like me. It helped introduce me to community in a civil and appropriate way.”
Blechel, who says that last year he’d spend his afternoons zoning out in front of the television, filling out worksheets and biding time until the next school day, has since developed into an impassioned community organizer. He’s the cofounder and president of Students United for Restorative Justice, a small group of engaged students with the ambitious goal of transforming the entire school community. In a well-edited video posted on their active Facebook page, members of the group explain their desire to challenge and change the disciplinary status quo at Santa Rosa High School and beyond.
He admits to recently being stressed-out as he tries to rally his peers and administrators at his school to embrace the idea of restorative justice.
“It would really hurt me not to see it go anywhere,” he adds.
Still, he’s buoyed by the outcome of a recent meeting with his school principal, which ended with the approval of a restorative justice presentation to the school faculty. At the same time, he worries that teachers will feel that the program “takes power” away from their ability to discipline students.
Fortunately for Blechel and Students for Restorative Justice, the positive results of the pilot program at Cook and Elsie Allen point to the possibility of district-wide implementation of restorative practices. Superintendent Shiels affirms the possibility by email.
“Based on the evidence we have now, about how this has informed discipline decisions at both sites, we feel strongly that this will be a district-wide practice,” she writes. The next step will be to provide support for the legion of volunteers, not to mention the comprehensive training in reparative practices for teachers and administrators needed to make it all happen.
It’s a shift that could put Santa Rosa on the map for educational innovation, says Zach Whelan, deputy director at Restorative Resources.
“What Santa Rosa is doing is pretty remarkable,” he says. “People are blown away at how the schools have really taken this on. When people see the transformation that’s happened, this will be one of the beacons in the coming years.”
For Zac Good, the lessons learned through restorative justice have been life-altering, and he wants all youth to have access to the tools that helped make such great changes.
“The current system doesn’t work, it’s flawed,” Good says. “It works in some cases, but for the majority of kids, it doesn’t. Kids that get in trouble get mad at other people, and they do it again. It’s a rabbit hole, and they fall deeper and deeper in.”
Good says the point is to catch kids like him early on, to help them see themselves as part of a community, while offering a sense of self-worth. “It’s not punishment. It’s about fixing the problem,” he says.