Claudia Rojas had a regular routine she followed most days during the 2012-13 school year, the year she took a job as one of three principals at the newly opened Augustus F. Hawkins High School in South Los Angeles. She would get up in the morning, have breakfast and then cry her way to work.
What Rojas thought would be a dream job — starting a new school focused on improving lives in an underserved neighborhood — had become a daily ordeal as gang violence spilled from the surrounding streets onto the school grounds themselves.
Hawkins, as it’s known, is a part of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Pilot School program, which was established in 2007 to relieve overcrowding at Belmont High School in central L.A. The idea behind the program, which now includes more than 30 schools, is to create small, innovative new schools that devote themselves to a specific mission.
Rojas, who had never been a principal before, was tapped to lead the Community Health Advocates School, which is one of three separate schools under the same roof at Hawkins High. The health advocates school incorporates research and advocacy for improved health outcomes in South L.A. neighborhoods into its curriculum. From the beginning, Rojas and the rest of the school’s founders agreed that restorative justice would be the foundation of the school’s discipline policy.
“The school felt like it was falling apart before my eyes,” said Claudia Rojas, Principal at August F. Hawkins High School
Restorative justice, or RJ as it is commonly called, is an alternative to punitive discipline that focuses on building positive school climates by creating strong bonds among students and teachers. And, when dealing with behavior problems like fights and bullying, the practice prioritizes mediation and conflict resolution among the students involved over traditional punishments.
It is increasingly being implemented in California schools as the state has passed laws and school districts have adopted policies aimed at reducing suspensions and other forms of punitive discipline.
Hawkins, like all pilot schools in LA Unified, started with a tiny staff — just three principals and 12 teachers serving 376 students. Because of this, Rojas and her colleagues figured it’d be relatively easy to eschew punitive discipline and make restorative justice part of the school’s DNA.
But these best-laid plans ran into the realities of life in South L.A. “We are at 60th and Hoover streets, which is surrounded by about 30 gangs,” Rojas said. “It became turf warfare on our campus.”
To hear Rojas and her staff tell it, the school almost died at its birth.
“There were fights in the hallway every day in front of my classroom — in front of everybody’s classroom,” said Samantha Warrick, a math teacher at CHAS. “It was like a scene out of a movie. Class sizes were huge, and we had one counselor, one principal and no assistant principals.”
Feeling overwhelmed, teachers and administrators fell back on what they knew. “We ended up suspending (students),” Rojas said. “We didn’t have resources for RJ. But we knew how to suspend kids, so we did. But that weighed heavily on our souls.”
All told, district records show 60 students were suspended from Hawkins High in 2012-13, a year Rojas describes as the worst of her professional life.
“I didn’t have a clue of what I was doing,” she said. “The school felt like it was falling apart before my eyes — every day that I was driving to Hawkins I was in tears and resisting the urge to just quit.”
Hitting the reset button
By the time the 2012-13 school year had mercifully come to an end, the Hawkins staff realized that a desire to change wasn’t enough.
“As a leadership team, we had bought into the theory of restorative justice,” said Tony Terry, who at the time was principal of Hawkins’ Responsible Indigenous Social Entrepreneurship School. “But as a collection of individuals we didn’t know how to do it.”
During the summer of 2013, teachers and administrators received restorative justice training from the California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ). More than 90 percent of the staff participated, according to Terry, who left Hawkins before the current school year.
“It became almost like a therapy session for the teachers and staff,” Rojas said. “After the trauma of the previous school year a lot of teachers were thinking of leaving. But after that training we all really bonded. It allowed me to really understand where my kids are coming from and what my teachers and staff are going through.”
Also that summer, Hawkins High hired Joseph Luciani as the school’s restorative justice coordinator. Luciani instituted what is known as the “circle process” as the foundational restorative justice practice at the school.
The process begins with one or two “circle keepers” who serve as facilitators and articulate the values of the circle, which include respect, integrity and speaking from the heart. The participants pass a “talking piece” around the circle to ensure that everyone gets a chance to speak without being interrupted.
In the school setting, the circle process takes on two separate forms: “community building” circles and “harm/conflict” circles.
The idea behind community building circles is to strengthen the bonds within groups in the school and create lines of communication among teachers and students. Harm/conflict circles are convened after students get into a fight, an instance of bullying or if a conflict arises between a student and teacher.
“Looking back, it made it easy to make RJ a part of the culture at our school,” Luciani said. “Going from training to real life in real time definitely helped — they started seeing the power of the practice almost immediately.”
“With circles, you become comfortable with people who aren’t in your friend group, it’s a stress reliever,” said Jasmin Osorto, senior at Augustus F. Hawkins High School.
Four years later, a visitor to Hawkins can see how restorative justice has been woven into the fabric of the school. Each Friday, the vast majority of students participate in a community building circle during their advisory period. And harm circles are part of the process in 90 percent of discipline cases, Rojas said, adding that CHAS had just one suspension during the recent fall semester.
Students and teachers who’ve been at Hawkins for the past few years say they can’t imagine the school without circles.
“The neighborhood we live in isn’t the greatest,” said Jasmin Osorto, a senior. “When you come in from the outside you know there is a different environment. With circles, you become comfortable with people who aren’t in your friend group, it’s a stress reliever.”
Questions about consequences
While no one at the school interviewed by EdSource questions the important role restorative practices have played in the drastic improvement of the overall climate and culture at Hawkins, there are some who have issues with how discipline is approached at the school.
“We’re good at restoring, we’re good at talking about our feelings,” said one teacher who asked for anonymity, fearing the possibility of reprisals from the district. “But we’re not good at talking about offering consequences before you restore.”
For example, if there is a fight “we immediately go into circle” rather than establish a consequence and then bring the students back into the fold in some restorative way, the teacher said. Others, both inside and outside the school, agree that there might be an over-reliance on circles at Hawkins and not enough repercussions.
Wendy Hernandez, who, until this school year, was a math teacher at Hawkins, talks about restorative justice at the school like people talk about democracy — calling it the best system out there, but one that is far from perfect. She said she even hears complaints from students, especially when it comes to issues related to bullying.
“When it’s the fourth time, fifth time with the same kid (bullying others), they tell me ‘I’m not going to have another circle about this. Circles don’t do anything,’” Hernandez said. “How can we address that? This is where we are stuck.”
Teachers interviewed, however, do not blame Rojas and other administrators at Hawkins for an approach that they see as sometimes too soft. They say district higher-ups put undue pressure on principals to keep suspensions low for reasons that have more to do with improving their image with the public than effective discipline.
“I feel bad for principal Rojas because she’s sandwiched in between,” said the teacher, who requested anonymity. “It’s politics coming from the district, from society — I mean no one wants to suspend kids…but there has to be a lesson that you can’t let your emotions take over.”
Deborah Brandy, who oversees restorative justice programs as LAUSD’s director of district operations, said she’s heard such complaints and points to the $10.5 million budget and nearly 70 employees the district has dedicated to restorative justice.
“We’ve made an effort to support our schools,” Brandy said. “And we continue to make sure they have what they need.”
Though some have their criticisms, current and former Hawkins teachers say they have little interest in going back to the way things were before. Warrick said restorative justice has taken the student-teacher relationship to another level.
“They get to see one teacher as a whole person and not just a teacher,” she said. “So, when stuff happens they know they can turn to me and have someone to rely on. I don’t want to say that it’s 100 percent because of the circles, but I know our love is very strong because of it.”
This year, Hernandez left Hawkins High to teach at Los Angeles High School of the Arts, where she graduated in 2006. And though she considers it a dream come true to teach at her alma mater, she misses the connections she made at Hawkins.
“At Hawkins if there’s a conflict, we’re going to have a circle about it,” Hernandez said. “At the school I’m at now, if I have a conflict with a student then I go to a counselor and the counselor deals with it on their own time, without me there…I want to be there — the student needs to be able to hear the impact of their actions.”