Harry* was in fifth grade when he brought a knife to his Fresno elementary school. He had no intention of using it, which his teachers and principal recognized, but the act of possession instigated protocol: a police report on his actions and a suspension on his record before he had even entered middle school.
When Harry returned to school, he found his punishment had just begun. Parents and other students were concerned about his presence, and he began to see himself as an outsider. His interest in school waned, and he began acting out. It was at this point that his principal contacted Fresno’s Victim Offender Reconciliation program (VORP) in an attempt to improve Harry’s situation.
“As soon as kids get suspended or go to court, they see themselves differently,” says VORP mediator Grace Spencer. “It’s only when plans are put into place to remove the label of ‘bad kid’ that the student is reestablished as a part of a supportive community. Only then does he have an incentive to complete his education.”
After VORP’s intervention, Harry participated in service hours with the school janitor, who became a mentor to him. Spencer said that these meetings left Harry feeling “centered” throughout the day. Working as an active member of the school community made him less inclined to act out, and he will successfully matriculate to middle school with his peers this fall.
For many educators and other professionals who work with children, Harry’s story is a familiar one. As evidence mounts showing a strong correlation between compromised educational outcomes and court involvement, discussion of alternatives to the traditional school-to-prison pipeline have gained momentum.
Fresno County is one of 32 California counties that came together in December 2013 to find ways to keep kids in school and out of court. California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye brought together representatives from 32 of California’s 58 counties for the first Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court conference (KKIS).
While chronic absenteeism or truancy inevitably impacts a student’s education, the conference highlighted the ways in which absenteeism is additionally linked to students’ court-involvement.
“When children are not in school or don’t graduate from high school, they are at greater risk of entering the juvenile justice system,” said Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye in a press release for the event. “The judicial system can’t wait until that happens–we need to recognize this looming problem and create the partnerships needed to return those children to their schools and to become productive members of society.”
That 2013 conference served as a jumping-off point for a more formalized connection between the California school and court systems.
This push is particularly significant in counties like Fresno, where suspended or expelled youth are three times as likely to be involved in the juvenile justice system within a year of their in-school offense. This data has forced the county to confront traditionally punitive discipline practices head-on, bringing the issue of restorative justice to the spotlight and testing it in a handful of Fresno classrooms.
Usually the courts only get involved in discipline once an offender has been deemed truant. However, the courts now have the opportunity to play a critical role in getting in and fostering conversation earlier, according to Judge Stacy Boulware Eurie, chairwoman of the KKIS Steering Committee.
“This is an opportunity for the courts to exercise a new leadership role in a way that maybe isn’t natural; you rarely see school principals talking with judges about where their jobs overlap,” Judge Boulware Eurie said in a recent phone interview. “However, it’s necessary to engage in this kind of conversation sooner rather than later.”
The 2013 KKIS conference was the first concrete step in changing the tone of the conversation around truancy. At the core of the 2013 conference was a recognition that students need to be physically in school in order to receive the state’s educational services. Being deprived of these services, as inevitably happens when one is chronically absent, has been tied to other problems; research presenters at the conference utilized statewide data showing a direct link between missing school, suspension from school and ultimately dropping out.
Making this link clear to parents, guardians and other stakeholders is the most important part of the work that KKIS is doing, said Gordon Jackson, director of the coordinated student support division in the California Department of Education, in a phone interview.
“Of course, all across the span of economics or earned income, there is this common thread among parents of wanting good things to happen for their kids,” Jackson said. “There is really a focus on the challenge of catching students early, before they develop truancy patterns, and involving the parents.”
This idea has been taken to heart in Fresno County, where the regional KKIS focus group and other stakeholders are working to improve academic performance of elementary and middle school students in order to prevent their eventual court-system involvement. This means targeting those with complicated home situations, and even creating personalized plans for how students will get to school. There is a particular focus on literacy, as studies have shown that students with strong reading engagement experience less absenteeism.
According to education specialists, one promising solution to this excessive absenteeism (and to numerous other justice questions) is a coordinated system of restorative justice.
Restorative justice programs involve two crucial components: a discussion among those involved with the crime or truancy, and a concrete plan for rectifying the situation. The oldest such program in the state, VORP of the Central Valley, was founded in 1982 by Ron and Roxanne Claasen, but has only relatively recently gained the momentum to become a part of the local juvenile justice vocabulary.
For the Claasens, who also founded the Discipline That Restores program at Fresno Pacific University, these techniques are an important part of getting students to reconnect with their school communities. After involvement with restorative justice techniques, VORP estimates that eight of every ten juvenile offenders successfully move on from crime and return to school. Instituted across school districts, these results are significant; when comparable California communities have instituted district-wide restorative justice policies, they have cut suspensions by up to 60 percent in just five years.
“There is, and has always been, a deep connection between courts and school,” Ron Claasen said. “In the past, this connection has perhaps been less explicit than it should be, but in Fresno in recent years, restorative justice has been adopted by more and more classrooms. It has become more and more explicit and intentional…and I hope it ultimately replaces a punitive system for most student discipline.”
In the years since the 2013 KKIS conference, county focus groups have met at least quarterly to discuss their progress on absence-prevention initiatives, and to generally keep up the momentum inspired by the conference. They also check in with state coordinators, with the ultimate goal of compiling statewide best practices.
“It’s not about money, or even about funding,” said Jackson, of the Department of Education. “It’s about the focus, communication, and collaboration to create a system-wide approach. That’s what will ultimately impact change.”
Lisa Jenkins is a journalism intern with The Imprint and a recent graduate of University of California-Berkeley.
*Names have been changed.