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San Francisco schools work with kids to cut suspensions, expulsions

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When a student at Civic Center Secondary School swore at a teacher, made threats and punched walls last year, faculty members wanted him gone.

The boy was suspended, but came back to school just as angry, recalled Ben Kauffman, then the school’s social worker. After the boy’s second suspension, school officials decided to try something different.

They asked the boy what was wrong.

“It basically came down to, ‘I feel dumb when I’m in this class,’” said Kauffman, who now works with the district’s student support services department.

After discussing the feelings of everyone involved, school officials moved the boy to a different class. He settled down and has not been suspended since.

That simple approach is part of a major overhaul of the San Francisco Unified School District’s discipline system. School officials said the concept, called “restorative practices,” is helping to reduce suspensions and expulsions.

Restorative practices originated in the criminal justice system in the 1970s and involve bringing perpetrators together with their victims and witnesses to discuss why an offense occurred and what to do about it.

“It’s people talking to each other; that’s all it is,” said Pete Babnis, head counselor at Herbert Hoover Middle School. “This gives voice to the person that’s been hurt as well.”

Last year, the first for the program at the SFUSD, referrals for expulsion were down 35 percent, according to district records. Nonmandatory referrals — those which did not involve a weapon, sexual assault or drug dealing — were down more than 60 percent. Most referrals do not lead to actual expulsion, but they do mean missing weeks of school.

Discussions related to restorative practices lead to an agreement about how to deal with the offense, Babnis said.

Punishment can be as simple as writing a letter of apology or as serious as transferring to a different school.

In other cases, the solution is not punishment at all. One group of students vandalizing the school with graffiti was given a canvas to paint. The art now hangs in the counselors’ office.

School officials say restorative practices can work for even serious offenses, but critics say the approach does not do enough to combat school violence.

“It’s just not the whole solution, and it’s really what’s being focused on to the detriment of everything else,” said Lisa Schiff, whose daughters are in eighth grade at Hoover. “There’s not a real focus on school safety.”

Restorative practices is still new, and its efficacy remains up for debate. But kicking students out of school is definitely not working, said A.P. Giannini Middle School teacher Betty Momjian.

“If they’re suspended, they go home, they’re watching TV, and it’s the same behavior,” she said.

acrawford@sfexaminer.com

Problem students

2009-10
Expulsion referrals: 198
Nonmandatory referrals: 88
Full expulsions: 11

2010-11
Expulsion referrals: 128
Nonmandatory referrals: 34
Full expulsions: 9