Education

Peers dispense student justice at San Juan High School

On a recent Thursday, Janae Carter, second from right, and Daryn Nieto, right, explain why they were listening to music on their phones in class. Every Thursday, a peer judicial panel of students at San Juan High School sit in judgment on fellow students who have broken campus rules. Justice is dispensed with an apology to the wronged party or an essay saying they won't repeat the offense. The practice is gaining strength around the nation and is popularly known as "restorative justice." Students on the panel are, from left, Quezisha Conner, Tristan Bare, Robert McCormick, Noelle Nixon and Ellina Hromava.
On a recent Thursday, Janae Carter, second from right, and Daryn Nieto, right, explain why they were listening to music on their phones in class. Every Thursday, a peer judicial panel of students at San Juan High School sit in judgment on fellow students who have broken campus rules. Justice is dispensed with an apology to the wronged party or an essay saying they won't repeat the offense. The practice is gaining strength around the nation and is popularly known as "restorative justice." Students on the panel are, from left, Quezisha Conner, Tristan Bare, Robert McCormick, Noelle Nixon and Ellina Hromava. lsterling@sacbee.com

The students, more than 30 in all, filed into room B7 at San Juan High School in Citrus Heights to receive their dose of social justice. Among the infractions: Using digital devices or bad language in class.

“Do you know why you are here?” senior Tristan Bare asked after several students were called forward. “You were all on your electronic devices and all were warned, the no-devices poster was displayed and you were using (the devices) during instruction.”

It was another Thursday morning for the high school’s peer judicial panel, one element of a culture-changing, conflict-reducing strategy known as “restorative practices” gaining traction in public schools nationally. The peer panels at San Juan focus on having students take responsibility for their actions and make amends for harms done.

The payoffs, San Juan students say, are fewer black marks on student records, fewer formal reports to principals and more palatable remedies to conflicts, all positive alternatives to student alienation and suspension. It’s the flip side of zero-tolerance policies that research shows disproportionately punish racial minorities.

San Juan senior Robert McCormick, 17, said the peer program, which is starting its third year of operation, has reduced stress for many students.

“I feel for us students to give the punishment is better because sometimes teachers overdo things,” said McCormick, who joined the peer judicial panel this year. “If it’s something like sagging (a dress violation of saggy pants), we’ll help the situation. The student will make a verbal apology to the teacher for showing their butt in class. But (the punishment) is not too serious to break the students down.”

McCormick said his experience on the panel and the training that went with it opened his eyes to better communication.

“We take it seriously,” he said. Some students “come in with attitudes toward us. But we learn how to deal with it, to not give an attitude back.

“Now, I respect them. I talk to them. I treat it more professionally.”

Even when he’s not sitting on the panel, he said, he talks to classmates “way different” than in past years.

School districts in Pittsburgh, Detroit and Baltimore have adopted facets of restorative practices, according to the International Institute for Restorative Practices in Pennsylvania.

Oakland Unified trustees in May invested in training and support to expand restorative practices in its schools. The district also called it quits, effective mid-2016, on suspensions for willful defiance, a move that dovetails with U.S. Department of Education guidelines urging an end to zero-tolerance discipline. The San Francisco Unified School District in 2014 called for full implementation of restorative practices in all of its schools.

Numerous studies, both national and state, have shown that a disproportionate share of minorities are suspended under zero-tolerance policies. In 2012, the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA reported that in California nearly one in five African American students and one in 14 Latino students were suspended at least once in 2009-10, compared to one in 17 white students and one in 33 Asian American students.

Multiple districts in the Sacramento region are pursuing ways to support rather than punish students.

The Sacramento City Unified School District trustees in June 2014 “really forced us to look differently at how we work with our kids and how we approach discipline,” said Doug Huscher, the district’s assistant superintendent of equity. This year, there are demonstration sites at three campuses: Oak Ridge Elementary, Will C. Wood Middle School and Luther Burbank High, he said. At San Juan High, school administrators launched the program in the 2013-2014 school year as a way to improve campus culture and climate, said district spokeswoman Kim Minugh.

Chevett Allen directs the restorative justice program and guides students she selects for the peer panel.

Allen and the students meet before each Thursday panel convenes to discuss the cases. Student panelists, working from school guidelines, determine the consequences for violators.

Students also established the rules: Students must have a pass to be in the hallways during class. Public displays of affection are not allowed. No scooters or skateboards may be used on campus. No electronic devices or headphones during class. No inappropriate language. No littering.

The dress code dictates that boys can’t wear sagging pants. Girls can’t wear halter tops with midriffs showing or spaghetti-strap tank tops. No negative images are allowed on clothing.

Punishments tend to fit the infraction. Students were asked to write apology letters to teachers for using bad language in class. A student who wore a shirt depicting marijuana leaves was told to write, with repetition, that he “will not wear offensive clothing to school.” Some students were directed to apologize directly to teachers for their actions.

Students accused of more serious offenses head straight to the vice principal’s office. Serious cases such as bringing drugs, tobacco or alcohol on or near the campus can lead to home suspension or referral to law enforcement, depending on the severity of the offense.

Though some students who appeared before the panel agreed to be photographed, they said they preferred not to talk about why they were there.

Tristan said the largest single share of violations tend to be for using digital devices in class. And he sees the issue in a way that many on campus might not.

“I feel like our generation is so attached to our phones that we’re on them constantly,” he said. “It’s a constant battle kind of thing.”

At the peer judicial panel session, one student said he was listening to music and playing a game during instruction. But Tristan said enforcement varies from class to class.

“Teachers are lax in some classrooms and not in others,” Tristan said. “Students have a lot of trouble dealing with that. Some of my teachers are really relaxed about having a phone in class. Other teachers say, ‘I don’t want to see them.’ I think it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have some kind of schoolwide policy.”

Tristan said he encourages students not to come back.

“We hope not to see you again,” he said, repeating a stock entreaty. “If there is a next time, the consequence is going to be more severe.”

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