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It seemed like a tall order.
For months, parents, students and activists had urged Santa Ana Unified School District leaders to accelerate their ongoing shift in student discipline from largely punitive responses to understanding and addressing underlying issues.
Such restorative justice programs, advocates argued, have been shown to reduce violence at schools and help prevent youth from getting involved in crime.
The district was about to get $56 million in extra state funding to support high-needs students, with a mandate that officials engage parents and students about how to best spend it.
But after repeated pleas, both in public and private, the advocates’ platform was getting a public endorsement from just one of five school board members — John Palacio.
So the advocates kept at it, continuing to make their case in person to top district officials, with parents relaying personal stories of how current discipline policies impacted their children.
The approach made a major impact.
Late last month, board members approved a spending plan that includes more than $7 million to implement restorative justice and other programs sought by advocates.
“You’ve made a difference, because you educated the board, as well as myself,” Palacio told about 40 students, parents and community activists gathered at a celebration organized by advocates last week. “We’re very supportive of what restorative justice is.”
Other advocate-requested programs funded in the plan include expanding school climate oversight committees, posting school discipline policies online in English and Spanish, and anti-bullying and “safe and sensitive schools” campaigns.
Advocates say this is just the beginning of their engagement with school officials.
“Our energy can go down, and if we aren’t on it, it won’t be implemented in the way we envision it,” said Laura Kanter, director of youth services at The Center OC, an advocacy group for the LGBTQ community. “We’re going to have to continue to maintain and build our base.”
To achieve their policy wins so far, advocates repeatedly engaged top school district officials on multiple fronts.
After researching the policies they wanted to see implemented, advocates spoke at school board meetings, met with board members, and found teachers who supported their efforts.
“Eventually I think they had to pay attention,” said Kanter. “We just weren’t going away.”
Advocates evaluated who supported their policy ideas, who would likely never support them and who could be convinced. They also sought out someone within the district to “champion” their effort, Kanter said, which ultimately became Palacio.
Key to the effort was bringing students’ stories to district leaders, to help illustrate the effect of restorative justice.
One student, Juan Julio, publicly told board members that he had been on the verge of being expelled from Santa Ana High School. Instead, he said, his life was turned around after he was sent to Santa Ana Unified’s Lorin Griset Academy continuation school, where a program run by Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color emphasizes restorative justice through peer-to-peer interventions.
“I love school now. I love being there, and it has changed my mind,” Julio said.
A mother also spoke about her son, who has a learning disability, and the negative experience he had with school discipline policies, said Rafael Solórzano of Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color.
“Those were powerful stories,” said Solórzano.
The advocates met with every school board member who would listen, Kanter said, with every board member ultimately talking to them except Rob Richardson.
Face-to-face meetings between youth, parents and district officials were key to building a relationship of trust, said Solórzano.
Palacio agreed. “It puts a personal touch there, on both sides…to hear their stories, to hear their needs,” he said.
Among board members, he added, “there’s an assumption that we’re aware of what’s happening in the community, because everything’s quiet,” and if everything’s quiet then it’s okay.
“But also we never asked,” said Palacio.
Through the recent engagement, Solórzano said, the youth and parents are seeing “an improved relationship with the school district. One that really points towards a future of working together, and really beginning to build community with them.”
The strategy, Solórzano said, involved “continuing to ask to come to the table.”
To Kanter, one of the big lessons was to “just be persistent…start out nice and you get a little firmer as you go along.”
Ultimately, advocates didn’t get everything they wanted – such as reducing student arrests and a ban on discipline for willful defiance – but were happy with what they did achieve.
“I think through our constant communication and through our follow up, through our always being there to hold [district leaders] accountable, they learned what engagement was,” said Solórzano.
“Engagement is not just receiving input, but also engaging in the input and continuing to have conversations and dialogue with all stakeholders.”
For Palacio, the engagement process was an important learning opportunity for both the board and activists.
The district had already started to embrace a major shift in its discipline approach, Palacio noted, with a 35-percent reduction in suspensions and expulsions in recent years and 70-percent cut in discipline for “willful defiance.”
And restorative-type programs have been effective in the district, he added.
The program at Lorin Griset, called Joven Noble, “has done very well in terms of teaching our students how to respect each other and while at the same time also addressing issues that many students are faced with,” said Palacio.
Restorative justice hasn’t traditionally been implemented at public schools, he added, and it takes time to train staff and convince them it works. “They have to buy in” for the approach to work, said Palacio.
Also key to the effort, according to those involved, was Solórzano, who helped parents and youth research restorative justice programs and speak with various officials.
Advocates view this as just the beginning of ongoing work to involve parents and students in the district’s decision-making process.
At their celebration last week, parents delivered that message directly to two board members – Palacio and Cecilia Iglesias – who encouraged their advocacy.
By coming to the advocates’ celebration and acknowledging their efforts, Kanter said, Palacio and Iglesias showed they weren’t “unattainable sort of figureheads of power.”
“Wouldn’t it be cool” if every elected official did the same, she added.