Santa Ana Unified Expands Restorative Justice Efforts

Amid growing advocacy aimed at addressing the underlying issues behind student misbehavior, Santa Ana school leaders are undertaking a significant expansion of restorative justice services on campus.

At their last board meeting, Santa Ana Unified School District trustees unanimously approved over $400,000 for trained facilitators to start implementing restorative practices like healing circles and restorative conferencing.

Much of the funding is slated for expanding the Joven Noble program, which would more than double in size, going from four schools to 10 starting this school year.

Joven Noble facilitators work to create a safe space for young men to open up about their challenges in front of other men – something that graduates have said had a powerful impact on them.  An emphasis is also placed on building self-respect and what it means to be an honorable young person.

The board’s support marks a major milestone in community efforts to further implement restorative justice.

“It’s a huge victory for these proposals to have been passed 4-0 — it definitely shows that the school board is strongly behind these proposals,” said Abraham Medina, director of Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color.

“But I think more importantly it has shown that the district has recognized our hard work and the effectiveness of our hard work and strategies.”

Among those praising restorative approaches is school board member Valerie Amezcua, who has worked at the county probation department for nearly 30 years.

“I believe in restorative justice, restorative processes. I’ve seen it work from my end” as a probation officer, she said. “It’s not ignoring bad behavior, it’s looking at the behavior with a different perspective.”

Board President John Palacio echoed her sentiments.

“We know that it’s been very successful and we can see the results of it,” he said, noting support from the principals at schools where Joven Noble has been implemented.

“The trend in this country is to look at…how can we provide the interventions to help these students, not only to deal with behavioral issues, but also to academically succeed. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Restorative practices, which work to address underlying causes of violence and misbehavior, have been getting more attention at Santa Ana Unified in recent years.

Their ongoing expansion comes amid years of advocacy by community members with the Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities coalition, as well as growing support among teachers, administrators and board members.

In the case of Joven Noble, the approach was to start out small, demonstrate its success and build support within the district for growing it to additional schools.

Palacio noted the importance of getting buy-in from teachers, administrators and parents.

“We know if you’re successful with one [school], you’ll find two more schools later that are willing to embark in it,” he said.

Advocacy from community members was also key, Medina said.

The original expansion proposal from district staff was to contract only with the Orange County Department of Education for restorative practices, which left out community-based nonprofits.

So Medina and other advocates mobilized students and parents to voice their concerns at the July 28 school board meeting, where the item was up for approval.

It worked.

The board allowed the schools to contract with any of four groups: the county education department, Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, OC Human Relations and Project Kinship.

“We showed up to the school board and the school board members basically said we’ve been seeing the work” and community groups should be part of the proposal, Medina said. “The advocacy was crucial.”

Amezcua said her time as a probation officer has led her to meet thousands of youth and adults who have cycled in and out of the criminal justice system. That experience has led her to believe it’s crucial to intervene early in people’s lives.

“We used to be so good at [saying], ‘You misbehaved, so we’re going to suspend you” or expel you, she said, adding that the approach has changed dramatically.

“This is not a program, this is not a pilot project.  It’s a change” in philosophy from punishment towards helping the wellbeing of students, she added.

Palacio, meanwhile, noted that the district started reforming its disciplinary philosophy years ago, which has resulted in major drops in suspensions and expulsions.

Expulsions, for example, are down from 179 to 34 over the last five years.

As far as hard data on the effectiveness of restorative practices, Medina said advocates would like to see each school establish a baseline for the number of behavioral issues like fights and student-teacher disputes.  And a year after implementation of restorative justice, look at whether there’s been a drop.

Dozens of youth have already participated in Joven Noble over the past year.  At a graduation ceremony in February, many students spoke about their struggles with drugs, violence or failing grades, and of finding a strong sense of self-respect that has helped them get on a better path.

With the latest expansion, schools slated to participate include Joven Noble are Century, Saddleback, Santa Ana and Valley high schools, as well as Lathrop, McFadden, Sierra, Spurgeon and Willard middle schools.

“As long as I’m sitting on that board, I will be pushing for restorative practices, because I’ve seen it firsthand,” Amezcua said.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.