Over a decade ago, the San Francisco Unified School District prioritized teacher training in restorative justice, a criminal justice approach based on perpetrator-victim conversations and community healing, to reduce student suspensions. A successful initiative was launched in 2010, but four years later it was decimated by district leadership and no program was created to replace it.
Teachers say they are now left in the dark: They aren’t given direction from SFUSD leadership on how to manage student misbehavior, some of which is violent, and the state and district have deemed suspensions a last resort. The lack of training and disciplinary direction have driven some teachers to leave the district — and several of the city public middle schools, including Marina Middle School, Everett Middle School and Aptos Middle School, have been reported to be overwhelmed by student behavior problems.
“We’ve had training on discipline practices, but those practices are not consistently applied,” said a current Francisco Middle School teacher, who asked for anonymity for fear of administrative retaliation. “My colleagues tell me that there was some training on restorative practices pre-pandemic, but post-pandemic, we haven’t seen anything.”
Fourteen years ago, the school district made restorative practices one of its top priorities to minimize suspensions, particularly for students of color. The board of education passed a resolution in 2009 that asked schools to pursue a school culture in which “students will learn to accept responsibility, repair the harm their actions have caused, recognize their role in maintaining a safe school environment, build upon their personal relationships in the school and contribute as a positive member of the school community.” This approach would lead to “an improved sense of community that will significantly decrease the need for suspensions, expulsions, and time that students are excluded from instruction due to behavior infractions.”
The plan was implemented in June 2010, and funding for it would “not increase the SFUSD budget deficit for 2010-2011,” according to the resolution. The district directed $600,000 toward the initiative’s launch. Kerri Berkowitz, the program’s administrator, said, “Our first priority was helping educators and other district stakeholders learn what restorative principles are and look like.”
A different culture, a new set of principles
During the trainings, educators were coached to “build a different culture grounded on a core set of relational principles” in schools, Berkowitz said. “Instead of punishing students for infractions, they were trained in a different way of holding students accountable through open dialogue of repairing harm and restoring relationships and community.”
For example, when students broke out in a fight, educators “would sit down with the individuals involved and identify who was impacted by the situation, and then bring everybody into a process of dialogue, where (students) were asked a core set of questions to help identify the root of the problem.”
Berkowitz said this simple and effective practice replaced the long-standing punitive approach — in which negative behavior was met with negative consequences, ranging from taking away recess time to suspension. This approach was based on studies that indicate suspension does not often result in positive behavior and can instead intensify misbehavior by increasing shame, alienation and rejection as well as lead to dropouts, repeating grades and juvenile hall.
The program was offered to all schools, and the principals and teachers who accepted “made a commitment to whole school training, coaching and culture change,” Berkowitz said. An implementation team was established that consisted of teachers and staff, with an educator acting as a site leader.
“It was a volunteer position (for the site leader). They became a champion of these practices, and acted as a liaison between the school site and our team,” Berkowitz said. “We had about 40 (educator volunteers) come together every single month — and we maintained this level of participation through 2014.”
Berkowitz credited the first year’s success to “lots of support from district leadership and the Parent Advisory Council.” Suspensions and expulsions were low during the program’s lifetime, as compared to years before its implementation. The initiative resulted in a reduction of overall suspensions throughout the district by 30% from 2009-2010 to 2012-2013, per SFUSD’s reporting.
The district directed just under $1 million per year in various grant funds to support this effort, according to Berkowitz. But the district dropped the program in 2014, and Berkowitz admits that she was never given a formal explanation as to why.
Safe and Supportive Schools with no training
The teacher training program was replaced in 2014 by the Safe and Supportive Schools Policy, introduced by then-school board member Matt Haney, who is now a member of the California State Assembly representing San Francisco. The policy acknowledged the success of Berkowitz’ program, hailing it as “SFUSD’s leadership in positive, evidence-based alternatives to school discipline.” The policy confirmed that “over 2,500 educators attended full-day restorative practice training, and many thousands more have attended meetings and professional development” between 2010 and 2013.
Haney’s proposal included “data-based decision making,” requiring that the district regularly collect and analyze discipline data and share it with the school community to inform disciplinary practices.
But the district didn’t follow through with that commitment. Coleman Advocates, a nonprofit student advocacy group of which school board president Kevine Boggess serves as senior policy director, released an assessment of the Safe and Supportive Schools resolution implementation in August 2015. The report stated “While the district has shown impressive initiative ... we are not seeing implementation of reforms and achievement of outcomes at the rate we expected, given that it has now been a full year and a half since the resolution was passed.”
Coleman Advocates’ assessment also stated that “the data the district has chosen to share with the public is incomplete and lacks the level of detail necessary for a comprehensive and rigorous assessment of progress.”
Boggess did not respond to a request for an update on the 2015 assessment by press time.
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Haney’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the resolution that replaced the restorative justice trainings.
But teachers have been willing to comment about their school’s disciplinary environment, although off the record, for fear of demotion or losing their jobs.
There is “a growing culture, not of skipping school, but skipping class and wandering the halls,” said a teacher who left Francisco Middle School last year.
This in-school truancy isn’t unique to Francisco Middle School, he said, adding that roaming the hallways “often metastasizes into violent altercations between students. I don’t know what (Francisco) looks like right now. But I know last year, it was a source of constant disruption and classroom doors had to always be locked.”
Inside the classroom, students “throw objects — pencils and erasers,” he said. The teacher noted that faculty currently lack the training needed to de-escalate student behavior and violence, and campuses sorely need “security aides, site supervisors and folks constantly in the halls” to keep the peace.
Teachers still at Francisco Middle School are asking for disciplinary guidance from administration, to no avail, while watching veteran teachers with 30-plus years of experience leave the school.
“We have three experienced teachers out on leave because of what they consider to be lack of support from administration in the face of school climate and discipline,” said another teacher at Francisco Middle School. “Last school year we had a teacher leave after the administration ignored homophobic attacks.”
“The kids are smart, they see they can get away with things,” she said. “When a fight breaks out, we are told to call home. Some of us are feeling unsafe in our classrooms. We’re not trained or equipped to confront (disciplinary infractions).”
Those infractions can range from “disrespect on a good day,” she said, to students using classroom supplies such as pens, pencils, and highlighters as weapons against their peers and breaking into physical fights. And when complaints are brought to administration, not much is resolved; Francisco Middle School’s staff is mentally and physically stretched thin.
“Every day, an email goes out calling for emergency (substitute teacher) coverage,” the teacher said.
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“If another teacher can’t cover, then counselors or administration covers.”
The Examiner asked district spokesperson Laura Dudnick what restorative justice training currently exists, who is able to access that training and how it is funded. Dudnick provided the most recent public update regarding Safe and Supportive Schools, which shows that the district spent $1,187,278 for restorative justice training in 2020, and that it received $1 million in federal Coordinated Early Intervention Services funds through June 2020.
A request for an interview on Feb. 13 with superintendent Matt Wayne on the status of restorative justice trainings was ignored.