LAUSD’s restorative justice efforts win White House applause
Craig Clough | July 23, 2015
LA Unified’s efforts at reforming its school discipline policies were applauded at a White House national conference yesterday attended by school administrators from around the country.
The day-long “Rethink Discipline” conference held up LA Unified as one of five districts that has seen positive results by moving away from “zero tolerance” disciplinary rules.
LA Unified board member Mónica García and several district staff members were invited to attend or speak at the conference.
“There was engagement, there was openness,” García told LA School Report today. “There was a starting of the sense of capacity building and learning, and there was a lot of gratitude to President Obama, who has been a leader of focusing on the civil rights of students and the need to have quality education everywhere.”
The conference literature pointed in particular to LA Unified’s School Climate Bill of Rights, a 2013 resolution authored by García that ended “willful defiance” suspensions, which was a zero-tolerance approach that had led to skyrocketing suspension and expulsion rates, particularly among African American students.
As part of the conference, the White House released data that shows suspended students are less likely to graduate on time and are more likely to repeat a grade or enter the juvenile justice system.
By taking on “restorative justice” techniques, which focuses on giving students counseling instead of suspensions, LA Unified and other districts have seen rising graduation rates. Last year, the district continued its efforts by significantly reducing the amount of tickets and arrests students received from school police for low-level offenses.
The Obama administration has taken up the cause of restorative justice, and the conference featured a number of high-level speakers, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
“[Duncan said], ‘We all have an opportunity to do something.’ And the whole idea of revisiting school discipline was married to the idea of civil rights, and mass incarceration,” said García, who also chairs the board’s Successful School Climate: Progressive Discipline Safety Committee. “There was hope in the room about doing something.”
Garcia said Jose Huerta, operations administrator for the district’s Local District East, addressed the conference about Garfield High School, which has seen increased graduation rates tied to new restorative justice techniques. Garfield, located in East LA, was featured in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver,” which famously dramatized the real-life success story of calculus teacher Jaime Escalante.
“Huerta told the audience about ‘Stand and Deliver,’ and when a kid asked him, ‘Are we as good as the ‘Stand and Deliver’ crowd?’ And he said, ‘You know, that was about 26 kids, and today I am telling you a story about 2,600 kids,’ so it wasn’t just a classroom, it was the whole school,” García said.
When asked what LA Unified could do to continue to improve its discipline policies, García pointed to the need for better data collection.
“Our community partners have been telling us that we need better data around suspensions and around incidents, and I think LA Unified is moving that way,” she said. “But I think we can do better, and it has to be public, the accessibility of it to the public needs to be something that is not laborious and outdated.”
García also said as the board searches for a new superintendent, she wants to make sure it hires someone who understands the role that community partner organizations play in restorative justice. García’s school climate committee includes members representing CADRE, Public Counsel and InnerCity Struggle.
“We need a a superintendent who understands that LA Unified has leadership in our community partners, and no one cares more about our children than our family, and we have to work with each other,” she said. “That’s another thing that came out of yesterday, which is no one does this alone. You need partners. You can’t just put it one that one teacher or that one counselor or that one officer, it is everybody’s business.”