Suspending judgment - Page 3

SFUSD considers alternatives to suspensions that some say unfairly impact students of color

Guardian photo by Brittany M. Powell

He was five years old, and as kindergartners sometimes do, he threw a temper tantrum. In the school's desperation to contain him, officials called the SFPD.

"The police only came one time," Desamuel, now seven, told the Guardian. Sitting in his San Francisco home with his uncle Lionel, Desamuel sounded ashamed. "But I didn't go to jail because they only put kids in jail for being bad, like kids taking guns to school."

The memory angers Desamuel's uncle, who feels restorative practices would have prevented the misunderstanding. His home is a testament to bridge building.

Lionel, his brothers and mother all pitch in to take care of Desamuel while the boy's father makes what he calls "a transition." The home is large by San Francisco standards. Drawings of Spiderman and Batman line the wall, equal in number only to the portraits of their family, most of whom live in the city. There's a lot of care in Desamuel's life. That hasn't stopped his tantrums, though.

The family tried to get him therapy, psychological analysis, anything to help. But as any parent can tell you, sometimes a child just needs love.

Lionel struggled with the school's administration, and asked them to try less punitive ways of handling his nephew. "I told them to just hug the boy. Their response was 'it's hard to hug someone swinging at you.'"

The last time Desamuel fought a student he was tackled to the ground by a school security guard. The now-second grader came home with a bruise on his face.

"When I was bad I hurted the children. I wasn't supposed to get up, and couldn't get up off the ground. He took me by the arms and legs," Desamuel said.

The problem with outsize use of suspensions and punitive action, Berkowitz said, is that it breeds a fear of school that shouldn't exist. Desamuel is no different.

"I got sent to the office and I had to go to the principal's office and they talked about me being bad," Desamuel said. "I think because I make too much trouble I have a lot of problems and they don't want me to be there."

Cat Reyes is a history teacher who is now a Restorative Practices coach at Mission High School. She said transformation in behavior is the whole point.

She told the Guardian about a student recorded a fight on film. The two fighting teenagers tried to let the incident go, but with the video online for all to see their pride came between them. If the school suspended the girl who recorded the fight there may never have been resolution. The wounds would fester.

But now the girl will join a restorative circle and explain her actions to those involved in the fight, and their parents. That's far more daunting to kids than simply going home for a day, Reyes said. It doesn't just stop at the talk though. "On one end she has to say sorry," Reyes said. "But now she may go to the media center and create a [movie] about it on our closed circuit TV. The consequence fits the crime."

As students talk out their differences enemies can become friends, she said. After all, the goal is to correct bad behavior and break destructive cycles. Yet less than half of the schools in SFUSD are employing Restorative Practices.

Slowly but surely

One of the biggest critiques of Restorative Practices is that it removes consequences. That's the wrong way to look at it, Berkowitz said: "When people say consequences, they mean punishment. We want to work with students to find root causes."

The numbers back her up: 2,700 SFUSD staff members have trained in Restorative Practices, according to data provided by the district. This consequently led to a strong reduction in suspensions, the district says, from more than 3,000 in 2009 to about 1,800 last year.

SFUSD recognized a good thing when it saw it, growing the Restorative Practices budget from $650,000 in 2009 to $900,000 in 2013.