By Paulina Rojas
Creating a positive learning environment in school can be challenging when students routinely see classmates suspended or expelled for minor infractions. That has been the case at Bobby Duke Middle School in Coachella, where the suspension rate last year was more than double the state average.
The situation prompted a group of parents and community organizers in the eastern Coachella Valley to launch a restorative justice pilot program they say will begin to reverse the trend.
“At the beginning I felt a little frustrated because I wanted things to go at a faster pace,” said Sandra Ramirez, a mother of four, in Spanish. “But now I understand that it is all part of how the process works.”
Ramirez sees a big need for programs like restorative justice in her community and thinks that more parents should be involved.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, it isn’t my kid, I don’t have to worry about it,” but the truth is that everyone in the community feels the negative effects when our kids start to go down the wrong path,” she said.
Bobby Duke’s suspension rate in 2014-2015 was 9 percent, compared to an average of 4.1 percent for the Coachella Valley Unified School District and 3.8 percent statewide.
There is an abundance of data showing a strong connection between high suspension and expulsion rates with poor academic performance, with black and Latino students experiencing rates that far surpass whites and Asians.
The idea to bring the restorative justice program to the Bobby Duke came from two parent leaders at the advocacy group Council of Mexican Federations (COFEM) who learned about the program and wanted to bring it to their children’s school.
Restorative justice focuses on rehabilitation and reconciliation. The practice has been used in schools from coast to coast in place of more punitive disciplinary measures to keep students in the classroom and off the streets.
The 12-week pilot at Bobby Duke began the week of February 15th and will end in late April. Ten teachers at the school have already committed to the program.
“I think the success of this has been due to parent involvement,” said Leoda Valenzuela of COFEM. “ They have the best ideas, things that really connect to people. It is a really positive environment that is being built.”
She added that implementing the program was made easier because parents “already had an established relationship with the school principal.”
COFEM, along with the community-based organizations TODEC legal center and Raices Cultura are part of the Building Healthy Communities (BHC) Eastern Coachella Valley Schools Action Team, which is working together with parents on the pilot program.
“[The pilot program] is going to be stronger because of the resources that BHC ECV are providing and the internal value that each person brings,” said BHC-ECV Project Coordinator Sahara Huazano.
Before the pilot took off the Schools Action Team held a series of meetings and forums beginning in the summer of 2015 to rally support and inform the community about restorative justice.
The most common way that RJ is implemented at schools is through circles. There are three common kinds of circles that occur depending on the situation that is being presented.
There are community-building circles that focus on relationship building. Conflict or healing circles seek to address a specific problem and reentry circles are used to welcome back students that have been suspended or expelled.
“It really strives to create that space where people can feel supported, where they can share and learn about one another and explore shared values,” Valenzuela said. “It is harder to harm someone that you know.”
Another aspect of RJ is a more effective and positive use of language. Feedback will be collected from six sessions of circles at Bobby Duke.
According to Huazano parents have been very receptive and satisfied with the program.
“They are very satisfied with it,” Huazano said. “Some of them are already practicing restorative justice, a term that describes many of the needs that they are trying to address.”
BHC will be a hiring a youth organizer to focus specifically on brining more students into the program at Bobby Duke Middle School.
At the core of restorative justice is the idea of community building and bonding.
“It is a very simple concept but you would be surprised at the need that there is for it,” Valenzuela said.
About the author:
Paulina Rojas joined Coachella Uninc. as a beat reporter in February 2016 after working as a city reporter in the eastern Coachella Valley for more than a year. Although born and raised in New York City, Paulina feels right at home in the eastern Coachella Valley. She loves the warmth of the people and buying fresh bread from her favorite bakery in downtown Coachella. Paulina is a graduate of the University of Houston, and her work has appeared in The Las Vegas Review – Journal, The Houston Chronicle, HelloGiggles and Vivala. View her author page here.