SF schools try to mend problems without suspension

By Jill Tucker

Rosa Parks Elementary school Principal Paul Jacobson, stops 
to talk with students during lunch, Akese King at his side, in 
San Francisco, Ca. on Thursday March 8, 2012. Jacobson is 
using restorative justice practices to reduce suspensions and 
behavioral problems with his students. He walks around the 
school with restorative justice questions on a lanyard he 
wears around his neck, at the ready when a conflict arises.
For two decades, Principal Paul Jacobsen was known as a no-nonsense, cut-to-the-chase, hard-nosed school administrator who didn't hesitate to dole out strict punishment when students broke the rules.

Then the San Francisco principal learned about something called the restorative justice approach.

The restorative model, which the school board has encouraged schools to adopt, focuses on getting offenders and victims to talk about their feelings, to address what they were thinking when the incident occurred, and to work together on what could make things "as right as possible."

The first time Jacobsen tried it he saw an immediate positive response. He was also able to identify the causes of the bad behavior, something that wasn't evident when he simply doled out punishment without asking questions.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "The process of taking the time to give students a full opportunity to speak their minds ... was eye-opening."

Not a far-out idea

Jacobsen knows how all that might sound to outsiders.
"I'm not hippie-dippie," the Rosa Parks Elementary School principal said.

It was just that after 20 years in the business, he had learned this: Suspensions and expulsions don't stop rule-breaking students from breaking rules again and again.

"It's not that we've suddenly become lenient," Jacobsen said of the new approach. "We just recognize we aren't going to be able to punish away the problems."

State and federal education officials agreed last week after a national study addressed high rates of suspension and expulsion, especially among African American students.

In response to the report by the federal Department of Education, state Superintendent Tom Torlakson urged districts to find ways to address student behavior that don't require keeping children away from school.
In addition, two state legislators have proposed measures requiring schools to limit suspensions and expulsions. Assembly Bill 2242 would eliminate "willful defiance" as a reason for suspending or expelling a student. Senate Bill 1235 would require alternative behavioral and intervention programs in schools with high rates of suspension or expulsion.

State law would still require suspension and recommended expulsion for students who bring a gun or explosive to school, brandish a knife, sell drugs or commit a sexual assault.

San Francisco is a few years ahead of those state efforts to rein in suspensions and expulsions while addressing behavior problems.

In 2009, the school board adopted a policy to promote restorative practices, "an emerging field of study that enables people to restore and build community in an increasingly disconnected world," according to the International Institute for Restorative Practices in Pennsylvania.