School Beat: What Happened to Violence Prevention Programs?

by Tim Lennon on January 20, 2011

On October 13, 2009 the San Francisco Board of Education (BOE) eliminated violence prevention program funding (Resolution 96-23A1) and replaced it with an array of policy directives based upon a number of recommendations made by the Coalition for Fair and Caring Schools (FairCare) and the SFUSD’s Discipline Taskforce. These directives cover implementation, a description of the targeted populations, alternative disciplinary processes, data collection, and professional development for Restorative Justice practices, review of District Policy and Priorities, data collection, more accountability, a time line and a budget, and ultimately a “culture shift” in how SFUSD addresses discipline problems.

The commendable goal of the BOE resolution is to “reduce the overall numbers of suspensions and expulsions . . . and to address the disproportionate number of African-American, Latino and Pacific Islander students who are suspended.” Here are some troubling statistics that no doubt prompted this BOE decision. According to the Public Education Enrichment Fund Spending Proposal, Fiscal year 2010-2011:

• In the 2008-2009 school year there were 3098 suspensions, 86 students referred for expulsion, 21 expelled.

• Although African-Americans comprise only 10.8% of student population, they made up 45% of expulsion referrals and 62% of those expelled. There was a small increase in the proportion of Latinos referred for expulsion

Additional statistics from the Middle School Youth Risk Behavior and Resiliency Results (2009) paint an overall disturbing picture of violence in our schools:

• 12.6% skipped school for fear of being unsafe

• 9.5% carried a knife or club as a weapon on school property

• 24.2% admit to being in a fight at school

• 34% reported being harassed because of their race or ethnic background

• 22.1% middle school students surveyed seriously considered attempting suicide in the last year

• 29.5% LGBQ students seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year

A number of actions and initiatives were mandated, however, their implementation has been slow, limited and flawed. Beyond the turmoil caused by the fraud and corruption caused by those previously running the department in the SFUSD here are a few other elements to consider:

• The BOE disbanded the SFUSD Discipline Taskforce and created the Restorative Justice and School Climate Taskforce in their October 13th resolution referenced above. This new taskforce was appointed to provide guidance to the Restorative Justice program however it only met a couple of times, has not met since April 2010 and appears to be disbanded.

• Contrary to good sense, the Restorative Justice program was not phased in while existing violence prevention programs were phased out. Over 11,000 students were being served through violence prevention activities and programs in the 2008-2009 school year with similar numbers projected for the 2009-2010 school year. (Source: SFUSD PEEF Expenditure Plan 2010-2011)

• The Restorative Justice program, as of December 2010, is still in the planning stages and is only in the beginning of a three-year implementation plan. A significant portion of the budget so far has been spent sending people off to training in Pennsylvania at the International Institute of Restorative Practices (IIRP), and on consultants with the IIRP and Educators for Social Responsibility.

• While the program is described as “multi-year, multi-pronged” it has been implemented in only four middle schools so there is minor impact with students in our hundred plus schools. Few resources are directly spent on students.

Plainly put, the administration eliminated violence prevention programs and replaced them with a program that will take years to implement. What happens to the vulnerable students in need during this multi-year implementation?

Further, even if the Restorative Justice program was implemented perfectly it would still be limited and flawed. Students spend only a portion of their day in school and no matter how beneficial the school culture, numerous external forces (social, economic, emotional, and psychological) outside of the school sphere operate independent of school actions. The existing violence prevention, wellness, and other programs attempt to help students deal with these external forces.

In addition to the above, SFUSD needs to address other limitations listed below:.

A. State law, by statue, prescribes specific offenses requiring expulsion and suspensions, specifically concerning weapons. Weapons and serious instances of violence must be reported to the police.

B. Serious violations require clear repercussions. School violence must be openly called out and addressed. The SFUSD and the District Attorney should work together to develop plans to address the full spectrum of student violence and work to prevent or reduce violence. Obviously, principals have some freedom to report, modify and enforce these laws. Given the directives of both the BOE and SFUSD to reduce suspensions and expulsions principals may feel pressured to downplay incidents that otherwise would lead to automatic suspensions suggesting continued monitoring and oversight by all concerned.

C. Restorative Justice is not an equal process. The parties to assault, threats, bullying, gang intimidation and their victims are not equal. The emphasis of the Restorative Justice programs to push all parties together, meet and “work out” their issues is seriously flawed. There is no equality when a victim of beating or threatened continued assaults or the victim of multiple assailants feels pressure to participate in a process that can be intimidating or threatening. A victim should not be traumatized further by participation in a process where they are exposed to possible intimidation and threats.

D. Protection of student victims, and possible future victims, must be of the highest priority. Nowhere in existing Restorative Justice descriptions and mandates do they speak of this necessity. A safe environment, free of threats and intimidation, has to be part of the school culture. The needs of the perpetrators must be second to the needs of the victims and the creation of a safe environment. Principals, teachers and other staff must work with students and parent/guardians to reestablish a safe environment as part of any Restorative Justice action. The rights and needs of student victims must be clearly articulated in SFUSD policy.

E. Restorative Justice practices do not equal violence prevention. Targeted violence prevention programs may be more effective than a general Restorative Justice focus to create a new school culture and need to be fairly evaluated to determine their effectiveness. Similarly, data must be provided to demonstrate that Restorative Justice activities will do better to reduce violence.

F. Restorative Justice is an “after the fact” action. In the SFUSD Project Plan, (Project Information, Restorative Justice/Practices, December 5, 2010) it states:

“An improved sense of community will significantly decrease the need for suspensions, expulsions and time that students are excluded from instruction due to behavior infractions. . . . Students will learn to accept accountability and to repair the harm their actions caused, recognize their role in maintaining a safe school environment, build upon their personal relationships in the school community and recognize their role as a positive contributing member of the school community. Ultimately, they will learn to make positive, productive and effective choices in response to situations they may encounter in the future.”

Note well that the focus concerns after the fact “repair” for the benefit of the future and fails to recognize opportunities previous to an infraction to prevent any incidents. It assumes that after a student “accepts accountability” for their actions they will make “positive” choices in the future. There is no acknowledgment of the need to deal with potential problems as a way of creating a better school environment.

Restorative Justice programs have the potential to address issues of equity by making all parties aware of the disproportionate imbalance in suspensions, especially with African-American students and a fully developed Restorative Justice program has the potential to reduce to absenteeism, bullying and reduce some violent conflict. Creating a positive and respectful school culture can have an important impact on the experiences of all students and there is significant benefit in creating a school community that keeps students engaged and interested in school life.

With that in mind, instances of disrespect, misunderstanding, and intolerance are good candidates for Restorative Justice practices. But any positive results would be many years down the road.

The most discouraging element of the planning for the Restorative Justice program is that the SFUSD does not acknowledge any limitations or weaknesses of the approach. Restorative Justice is seen as a universal solution to problems that have at their root a myriad of diverse elements.

The SFUSD has the good fortune to have a number of exceptional programs that actively work to benefit student experiences in both middle school and high school. Those should be maintained and seen as complementary to the Restorative Justice initiative. The Peer Resources program, Wellness Centers in all our high schools and the important work performed by our nurses and social workers every day provide significant and exceptional support for students in need. Parent liaisons provide further support through their work to involve parents in school communities. These programs directly improve the day to day lives of most vulnerable children.

Any cultural shift requires a huge multi-year commitment. Facilitating a cultural shift in the SFUSD requires sky high investment in professional development for the principals, support staff and over six thousand teachers. It can be done, but was eliminating violence prevention programs in sole favor of a Restorative Justice approach the best way to improve our schools and help our kids?

Tim Lennon is the father of twins at Hoover Middle School, the *Co-Chair, Community Advisory Committee, Public Education Enrichment Fund, and the *PTA Secretary at Hoover Middle School
*for identification purposes only

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