“Simon” had been suspended from his Compton Unified high school four times in the past two years. He has had attendance issues since middle school and he was often in trouble with his school’s administrators because of verbal clashes with teachers. His troubles hit bottom at the end of last school year when he was arrested by school police for vandalism.
Simon is a composite of a few students at CUSD who have benefitted from an innovative diversion program at CUSD, in partnership with Centinela Youth Services, that seeks to connect troubled students with services that provide them an avenue to turn things around and avoid a criminal record.
The program is being championed by Board President Satra Zurita and Board VP Micah Ali.
Says Zurita: “We know that many of our ‘problem’ students are acting out because of serious challenges they’re dealing with that we don’t know about – challenges we can help them with if we can get to them in time.”
Instead of expelling, or worse, arresting and prosecuting students, the program seeks to identify students that are acting out personal problems or problems at home, and find alternative punishment and, whenever possible, restitution. It’s called “restorative justice” and it is increasingly being used by school districts, particularly those with high concentrations of students of color.
We learned later that Simon had been caring for his ill mother and they were about to lose their apartment. Facing the possibility of homelessness and the burden of being a caregiver, Simon turned to marijuana to cope with stress and depression.
According to counselors, on a night out with friends Simon took out his frustration and anger on school property.
Superintendent Darin Brawley says nobody is getting a ‘pass’ at bad behavior. But sometimes that behavior is masking severe emotional and psychological issues that must be addressed.
As part of the CYS restorative justice program, Simon met with the teacher whose classroom he vandalized. He learned from the teacher how upset her students were at the damage discovered the next morning and how it impacted their school experience. And it turned out she was his teacher two years ago. She was personally hurt when she learned which student had created the damage. The teacher had felt she and Simon had a good relationship when he had been in her class two years ago and so she could not understand why he would hurt her this way.
When Simon realized how his actions hurt his teachers and upset the students, he broke down and apologized sincerely. The volunteers facilitating the meeting then asked Simon how he’d like to make things right with his teacher. He offered to volunteer to help the teacher with class prep after school and wrote letter of apology to his teacher and to the class.
Centinela Youth Services officials provided the School Board with a progress report on the project recently, and the results were met with great enthusiasm by board leaders, administrators and, notably, CUSD Police Chief William Wu.
"They give us an alternative that we didn't have before that helps us improve student behavior and, importantly, keep more of them in school," Wu said.
The results of each case differ. Sometimes they offer victim/offender mediator services where the offending student meets directly with the victim to find a way to make things right. Other times, Centinela Youth Services counselors will mediate with students and their parents. But in the end, none of the students end up with a criminal record.
The case management is designed to try and solve the problem before a student winds up in more serious trouble – or prison. In Simon’s case, his mother was connected with housing support and medical caretaker support and Simon began therapy to help him deal with with his fear of losing his mother to illness. Simon also enrolled in a job training program and improved his grades significantly.
There is no cost to families for the services. Current services are grant funded at no cost to the district.
"It's another example of how Compton Unified School District is leading the way in restorative justice," says Ali.