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San Diego Unified School District will require ‘restorative’ rather than punitive discipline in some cases

The San Diego Unified School District board, pictured in April 2019, has overhauled its discipline and grading practices.
The San Diego Unified School District board, pictured in April 2019, has overhauled its discipline and grading practices to address racial inequities and provide students more chances to make amends or show improvement.
(File)

New changes to grading and discipline are meant to address racial inequity but draw concerns from teachers on how they will be implemented.

In a major step away from punitive discipline for students, the San Diego Unified School District is replacing in-school suspensions with alternative-to-suspension programs and requiring that schools use “restorative” interventions before suspending a student out of school.

The board unanimously approved the new discipline policy Oct. 27, two weeks after it approved sweeping changes to the district’s grading practices, including separating non-academic factors from academic grades and giving students chances to redo assignments and learn from their mistakes.

San Diego Unified also will negotiate with the teachers union by next year to eliminate student suspensions across all grade levels for “willful defiance.” Advocates say willful defiance is a subjective rationale for discipline that has helped fuel discriminatory discipline of Black and Latino students.

California prohibits willful-defiance suspensions for elementary and middle grades, though the ban for middle grades expires in 2025.

The changes are meant to address racial disparities in discipline and grading. For example, African Americans made up 8 percent of the San Diego Unified student body two years ago but 18 percent of suspended students, while Latinos made up 44 percent of students and 53 percent of suspended students.

Students with disabilities in San Diego Unified are suspended at a rate twice the district average.

Black and Latino students, as well as students with disabilities, also are much more likely to get D’s and F’s than their peers, San Diego Unified data show.

School officials and experts have said those disparities often are fueled by bias or other factors outside a student’s control. For example, a student living in poverty who has to work or take care of siblings may be more likely to fail a test due to a lack of time or concentration. A student who is homeless or lacks food may be more likely to have an outburst in class.

The point of restorative discipline, proponents say, is to get at the reason students are acting out, rather than simply punishing them without giving them a chance to address the root cause or make amends.

San Diego Unified officials say they also want to keep students in school rather than suspend them and deprive them of education.

“Although we are living in a virtual environment, our students are dealing with trauma and ongoing crises that may manifest themselves in attention-seeking behaviors,” district Instructional Support Officer Nicole DeWitt said at the Oct. 27 board meeting. “It is important now, more than ever, that we take a restorative and supportive approach to identify why the behavior is occurring and what additional assistance the student may need.”

A new mandate

The district already has a restorative discipline policy, dated 2017. But that was more of a recommendation than a mandate; schools could follow it if they chose.

For example, the policy encouraged schools to avoid unnecessarily criminalizing students by bringing in law enforcement, and it encouraged schools to look at reasons students might have acted out, but it didn’t say that schools had to do so.

The new policy makes that mandatory for schools.

One of the key parts of the new policy is that it creates four severity levels of behavior, each outlining specific behaviors and responses.

Nina Bonaventure, a student at La Jolla High School who spoke during the board meeting, said she believes these standardized levels of behavior will help reduce discriminatory discipline.

For example, if a student bullies or harasses students or staff or frequently disrupts class or uses profanity, the student could be given after-school counseling, a classroom suspension, mentoring, peer mediation, Saturday school or a referral to a support program, according to the policy.

Or if a student assaults an employee or makes a threat, the student could be given community service, counseling or a behavioral assessment. The student also could be suspended from school for one to three days.

The policy says school police should be involved only in incidents that state law requires be reported to police, such as unlawfully possessing or selling drugs or having a firearm at or near school.

Teachers’ rights

Teachers are pushing back on some of the discipline and grading changes.

Multiple teachers said at the Oct. 27 board meeting that while they believe the district’s intent to address racial inequity is worthwhile, the changes are coming too quickly, without sufficient input and at a time when teachers are already under stress trying to provide distance learning.

San Diego Unified teachers union President Kisha Borden said she’s concerned that the new discipline policy could limit teachers’ rights for suspending students over disruptive behavior.

“The district is attempting the commendable work of addressing systemic inequities; however, the way they are going about it is generating confusion and consternation among educators,” Borden said in an email. “Undertaking yet another massive change, without sufficient educator input or training, on the heels of their last massive change, which also lacked sufficient educator input or training, is just bad.”

Many schools across the country have been adopting restorative discipline in recent years, but the implementation has not always been successful. In some cases it has raised frustration among teachers who said they were forced to keep disruptive students in class, making it harder for them to manage the classroom and for other students to learn.

State law protects teachers’ right to suspend students from their classroom — provided it’s for one of a list of reasons, such as bullying or attempting to physically injure another person.

San Diego Unified’s new policy says teachers can still suspend students from class for good cause. Teachers must report the suspension to the principal, and the principal or another administrator will assign an intervention, according to the policy.

In response to the teachers’ concerns, DeWitt said the district will offer teachers anti-bias and restorative practices training throughout the school year to help them implement restorative discipline.

For grading, DeWitt said teachers should be meeting with their administrators and other teachers at their schools to discuss how to give students second chances to improve their grades.

DeWitt said she isn’t expecting teachers to do that for every classroom assignment, just the most important ones.

“Whenever a policy like this comes out, there’s a feeling that you have to tackle everything at once, and that’s definitely not something that we’re asking,” DeWitt said. “We realize that has to be manageable for everyone.” ◆