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Could Restorative Justice Unlock the Potential of Troubled Youth?

Could Restorative Justice Unlock the Potential of Troubled Youth?

The ConnectOC Blog is a place for sharing insight, information and examples of how Orange County residents, donors and nonprofits are working to build a brighter, stronger, more vibrant community.  We welcome you to share your thoughts by commenting below

Research shows that expulsions and suspensions do more harm than good for the future of our students and our community.

What if we could unlock the potential of each student instead of locking a troubled youth out of learning? Could youth deemed too difficult to deal with due to repeated behavior problems be helped to reconnect with their education if given the opportunity?

When we think about creating pathways to educational success, we envision tutoring and mentoring programs, after-school enrichment or innovations in classroom learning. These are important strategies, but they only work when students are in school.

Troubled students who are repeatedly suspended or ultimately expelled are cut off from the best path to a productive future—their education. And with 17,016 students either suspended or expelled in Orange County during the 2012- 2013 school year, according to the California Department of Education, too many kids are falling through the cracks. 

Fortunately, the Orange County Department of Education and OC Human Relations have recognized the need for an alternative approach to discipline. Called restorative justice, it uses positive interventions to keep kids in their school community while taking responsibility for their behavior. 

“Over the past several years, research has shown that time spent out of school due to suspension or expulsion is not an effective practice for violators of school rules,” said Rick Riegel, coordinator of student services for the Orange County Department of Education.“Away from campus, they are not learning, they feel rejected by school and become truant.” 

With restorative justice, student offenders take responsibility for their actions and must repair the harm they’ve caused. Restorative justice fosters dialogue, resolution and healing for perpetrators and victims of destructive behavior. For example, if a student pushes another student, the offender must show genuine remorse for his actions, meet with the student he harmed, understand the consequences of his actions and work through restitution together.

This process can take from 30 minutes to a couple of hours following a structured process. Restorative justice allows both students to repair their relationship — an exercise in communication, collaboration and compromise they can use throughout their lives.

“There’s a misconception that restorative justice is a soft discipline, yet it’s challenging for students to go through,” Riegel says. “They have to face the impact of their actions, hear different people describe their emotions, acknowledge what they have done wrong and come up with a plan to make it right. It’s a process to let them be restored and reinstated to their community position. But they’ll have to go through a lot to get there.” 

Although restorative justice is a new concept locally, OC Human Relations believes it to be an important tool in creating safe, inclusive schools and communities. The nonprofit rolled out its first pilot program at Santa Ana’s Valley High School, one of the lowest-performing schools in Orange County. 

“At VHS there are great people at every level working hard to create a positive, safe learning environment,” explained Rusty Kennedy, CEO of OC Human Relations. “However, the challenges are significant and the teachers and administration wanted to try an innovative approach to reorient their discipline process. Our approach is first on building community and familiarity with restorative justice practices before attempting to adopt an entirely new view on discipline. Ultimately, we believe that restorative justice will allow the campus to experience it, develop faith in the process, and see the suspension, expulsion and truancy rates drop.”
And if successful, restorative justice can tip the balance for thousands of Orange County students who might otherwise never get back on track in school or in life.

If you’d like to get involved, explore the many nonprofits working to secure our children’s educational futures at ocnonprofitcentral.org.


Shelley Hoss is president of the Orange County Community Foundation. She can be reached at [email protected].

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