Restorative justice came to the Coachella Valley Unified School District when a few moms finally had enough of their kids coming home in tears after being bullied at school.
The parents vented their anger during a community meeting in 2015, describing the bullying issues at Bobby Duke Middle School, which is situated in one of the Southern California desert region’s poorest neighborhoods. It was during that meeting that Bobby Duke parent Sandra Ramirez first heard about restorative justice.
Ramirez remembers a light bulb going on for her as she listened to a presenter describe the practice, which, among other things, focuses on building strong relationships in communities and attending to the needs of victims in situations where harm has been done.
“That’s what we need for Coachella Valley,” she said to herself.
With her revelation that night, Ramirez joined a growing movement — which includes youth advocates, educators and some of the state’s high-ranking ranking education policymakers — that sees restorative justice and other alternatives to traditional school discipline as powerful tools for improving school environments.
The rise of restorative justice has coincided with a re-imagining of school discipline in California and in many places throughout the nation. Interest in the practices is fueled by the growing consensus that traditional, more punitive measures — like suspensions and expulsions — are largely ineffective, expensive and disproportionately target students of color, LGBT students and those with disabilities.
But accompanying this sea change is a growing concern among many teachers, administrators and youth advocates that districts are not devoting nearly enough resources to restorative justice and other alternatives. They fear the statewide push to reduce suspensions and replace traditional discipline is already being seen as a massive unfunded mandate that will inevitably lead to a backlash.
“One of the things we worry about is that teachers are always receiving new programs and new theoretical frameworks,” said Taharka Anderson, a restorative justice coordinator with California Conference for Equity and Justice (CCEJ) who works in Long Beach schools. “But when we do that and don’t put the proper resources behind it, it registers in their mind that there is a problem with the program rather than with the system.”
A rude awakening
Restorative justice uses discussion circles and one-on-one mediations to address issues students are dealing with at school and in their daily lives. The practices are also used to resolve conflicts among students or between a teacher and a student; and to reintegrate students back into school after extended absences.
After the meeting in 2015, Ramirez spoke to other parents and they agreed restorative justice was a possible solution to the bullying problem at Bobby Duke Middle School. So, with help from community advocates, the parents went to work spreading the gospel of restorative justice, with the ultimate goal of making it a permanent part of Coachella Unified’s budget.
They knocked on doors, organized informational meetings and showed up in force to the district’s public hearings for its Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), which every district in California must create under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the state’s landmark school budgeting law passed in 2013.
Their hard work paid off, or so they thought.
For the 2016-17 school year, Coachella Valley Unified’s school board allocated more than $300,000 to restorative justice, which was to cover training for teachers throughout the district and the hiring of four part-time restorative justice facilitators.
But a year later, the vast majority of the money set aside in the LCAP was never spent. No new hires were made and the teacher trainings didn’t happen.
“After the money was approved, we didn’t receive much help from the district,” Ramirez said. “They didn’t design anything, didn’t hire anyone… I feel like they tried to minimize our needs and still do whatever they wanted to do regardless of our input.”
District officials confirmed that the only money spent was just over $50,000 to cover stipends given to teachers who were tasked with leading restorative justice efforts at their schools.
Coachella Superintendent Edwin Gomez, who was hired in 2017, said the district was not as transparent as it should have been regarding resources allocated for restorative justice and acknowledged that the previous administration and school board at times ignored the wishes of parents.
But, he said, recent developments show the district is committed to restorative justice. Gomez credited Ramirez and other parents for their efforts and pointed to the board’s approval this month of a proposal to contract with CCEJ to provide restorative justice training. And though the board did not commit to a specific budget number, he said it would be in the $70,000 range to start.
“We understand the investment has to be greater and we are going to make it happen,” Gomez said.
The experiences of the Coachella parents are not unique. Interviews with parents, teachers and advocates in other California school districts, including San Diego Unified and Long Beach Unified, say district officials often make promises during LCAP hearings that they don’t end up keeping.
“During the first few years of LCFF we really struggled to get answers about resources for restorative justice in Long Beach schools,” said Angelica Salazar, director of education equity for the Children’s Defense Fund – California.
Salazar said the district’s 2014-15 LCAP included $100,000 for restorative justice, which she described as a “tiny amount” for a district with an $800 million annual budget. But even that money was never spent, Salazar said, adding that the district also didn’t spend any of the $190,000 budgeted for the following year.
Long Beach Unified officials did not fulfill a request from EdSource to provide specific, year-by-year, spending on its restorative justice efforts going back several years.
The district allocated $250,000 for restorative justice in its LCAP for the current year. While an increase from previous years, the allocation is far less than those in some other large urban districts.
Oakland Unified, for example, has a restorative justice budget of approximately $2.5 million. The budget in Los Angeles Unified, by far the largest district in the state, is approaching $11 million.
But even in those districts, advocates like Salazar are quick to bring up caveats. In L.A., they point out that the restorative justice budget pales in comparison to the nearly $70 million L.A. Unified spends on school police. And in Oakland, budget cuts forced the district to issue layoff notices last month to some restorative justice facilitators.
When asked about restorative justice budgets at Long Beach Unified, spokesman Chris Eftychiou said the district’s philosophy is to start small with new initiatives and then “take them to scale if we see they are getting good results.”
“We’ve seen mixed results (with restorative justice) depending on the site and implementation,” Eftychiou added. “But it does show promise in various settings and continues to be part of the larger plan going forward.”
Suzanne Caverly, who is currently the acting principal at Gompers K-8 School in Long Beach, first discovered restorative justice several years ago while working as a 10th-grade teacher at Beach High School, a school in Long Beach Unified where students in danger of not graduating are sent to make up for lost ground.
“It changed the way I did my job in every way, the way I listened to kids” Caverly said in a recent interview. “And we started to see a big change in school culture.”
Sandra Rodriguez and other advocates in San Diego have voiced budget-related complaints similar to those of their counterparts in Long Beach. In 2014, the school board declared San Diego Unified a “restorative district” as part of an effort to bring an official end to an era of zero-tolerance discipline in the district.
But for years money to support restorative justice didn’t materialize, said Rodriguez, who until this year was the restorative justice coordinator for the San Diego-based Mid-City Community Advocacy Network (CAN).
“San Diego Unified was very challenging to work with,” said Rodriguez, who now works for the Oakland-based advocacy group Impact Justice. “They claimed to be an RJ district and then went on to fund absolutely nothing.”
That has changed recently with the board passing a “school climate bill of rights” in 2017 that centers on restorative justice, and allocating approximately $800,000 to restorative justice for the current school year. Most of that money has gone toward establishing a department of restorative practices, which is led by Felicia Singleton-Daniel.
“The movement and growth of restorative practices in San Diego Unified has been organic — people experiencing it,” said Singleton-Daniel, who oversees a staff of seven in her department. “With this being the inaugural year of the department, my focus has been on building a program and assembling a team.”
Some blame for the conflict between districts and advocates can be placed on the LCFF itself, said Rob Manwaring, senior policy and fiscal advisor for Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy group.
Under the school funding system that the LCFF replaced, districts had no choice but to spend money on programs like restorative justice if they came in the form of one of three dozen “categorical” grants, which were required to be spent for a specific purpose.
“In the past, if you got money for a specific purpose and didn’t spend it in year one, then you’d have to spend it in year two,” Manwaring said. “LCFF doesn’t have that requirement…[districts] can go and spend it on anything they want to the following year — there is no accountability for doing what you said you planned to do.”
The lack of transparency Manwaring describes led to a formal complaint filed last September against Long Beach Unified on behalf of district parents by the public interest law firm Public Advocates and the Children’s Defense Fund.
In a ruling responding to the complaint, the Los Angeles County Office of Education acknowledged it mistakenly approved Long Beach Unified’s 2016 LCAP, which misallocated $24 million that should have been targeted to low-income children, foster and homeless youth, and English learners.
“There is no accountability for doing what you said you planned to do,” said Rob Manwaring, senior policy and fiscal advisor for Children Now.
The complaint alleged the district violated the requirements of the LCFF by allocating this money for, among other things, districtwide technology purchases and teacher and staff salaries. They say if this money had been targeted to high-needs students, as the law requires, then restorative justice and other similar programs would be better funded in the district.
The district, meanwhile, has steadfastly maintained that the money was allocated appropriately. “We still believe the LCAP meets the intent of the law and we are using the expenditures as intended,” Eftychiou said.
On May 11, Long Beach Unified came to an agreement with parents and advocates in which the district will provide additional funding for enhanced mental health and social emotional services, as well as extended tutoring in math and English to 30 of its highest-need schools. The district also agreed to improved community engagement in LCAP development and monitoring.
Currently, Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing language, and the Senate and Assembly are considering bills, that would tighten accountability requirements for districts’ LCAPs.
There needs to be greater accountability for the sake of people like Sandra Ramirez, said Daniel Losen, director of UCLA’s Center for Civil Rights Remedies. The whole point of the state’s school funding formula is to give the community the opportunity to shape their schools, he said.
“When you look at the programs that aren’t fly-by-night operations, there is a certain community presence,” Losen said. “It’s not a cookie-cutter thing — the end result should reflect the community’s input.”