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‘Paradigm shift’: La Jolla Cluster schools feel they’re ‘on the right track’ on restorative justice practices

Lan Nguyen (top row, left) speaks to the La Jolla Cluster Association about restorative justice practices.
Lan Nguyen (top row, left) speaks to the La Jolla Cluster Association about restorative justice practices, which she calls a “paradigm shift.”
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Representatives of the La Jolla Cluster Association, which contains the five La Jolla campuses in the San Diego Unified School District, heard details about the district’s adoption of restorative justice practices at the association’s May 20 meeting, the final one this school year.

Lan Nguyen, a resource teacher in SDUSD’s RJP department, said there are different definitions of restorative justice, but “the one we’re going to roll with” describes it as promoting “values and principles that use inclusive, collaborative approaches for being in community.”

Nguyen said “it’s important to note restorative justice is not a program, it’s not a curriculum, it’s not a prescriptive set of practices.”

“It’s a way of thinking about our relationships with each other and about our interconnectedness,” she said. “It’s a way of being, a way of doing, it’s also practices … and outcomes. It’s a paradigm shift.”

Katherine Aud, also a resource teacher in the RJP department, said the department’s mission “is to build restorative communities by fostering humanizing relationships that are student-centered and values-driven ... to create and sustain an educational system that centers on the whole child, with dignity, love and respect, where the gifts and talents and skills of all students can thrive.”

She said the department’s role is to “inform and shift the mindset” of some common myths about RJP, including that it’s a “way to let the kids run wild; it’s a bunch of people sitting in a circle; it’s a touchy-feely approach to discipline; it’s responsible for the violence in our schools; it doesn’t hold students accountable.”

RJP has “indigenous roots [in] community-based cultures,” Aud said, such as Native Americans and the First Nations people in Canada. There also is evidence of such practices in Scandinavian Viking, New Zealand Maori and Rwandan communities, “along with many other global cultures,” she said.

SDUSD adopted a restorative discipline policy on Oct. 27 intended to emphasize alternatives to suspension, address racial disparities in discipline, and get at the reasons students are acting out, rather than punishing them without giving them a chance to address the root cause or make amends.

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

The “La Jolla Cluster RJP journey,” Aud said, “is about the possibility to enhance and strengthen the supports you already have ... within your cluster.”

The RJP department is providing cluster staff with professional development, she said, “with the supportive practices and strategies that can be used on each school campus,” customized for elementary or secondary schools.

Aud said the cluster’s three elementary schools (La Jolla, Torrey Pines and Bird Rock) participated in a training session in April, with a second set for May 21.

Torrey Pines Elementary Principal Nona Richard said “we had a really wonderful response to the initial training from our elementary teachers. ... We’re already doing a lot of this work when we’re building relationships intentionally. … We’re just going to learn how to do it more completely with this lens, so it felt very affirming that we’re really on the right track.”

Cluster Association also hears district’s plans for a ‘digital academy’ for online students next school year and its summer program ‘for anybody.’

Bird Rock Elementary Principal Andi Frost said “one of the most difficult things I do every year is trying to put on paper our discipline policy, because I strongly believe in an RJP approach. I strongly believe in having conversations and identifying needs, identifying where each one of us may have fallen down and trying to make adjustments so we can move forward as a group.”

RJP “is just such a natural, wonderful augmentation or enrichment of what we do,” Frost said.

La Jolla High School staff participated in a RJP training session May 14. Principal Chuck Podhorsky said it “really reaffirmed with us the work that we’re doing. [RJP] is a way of being, that culture that you want to create in your school that you can just kind of feel.”

“We’re super excited to continue that work and really embrace our students and focus on the social-emotional component,” he said.

The department also is working with cluster parent representative Jenn Beverage to schedule a three-part webinar series for parents on RJP, to take place after school resumes in the fall.

“For concepts like this that aren’t so directive, that are not a program or specific practices you can point to, it can be very difficult for parents to wrap their head around it,” Beverage said. “Especially when something maybe has a politicized lens as well.”

Monica Spydell never would have thought to enroll her second-grade daughter in online classes before the COVID-19 pandemic.

There also are youth leadership opportunities focused on social-emotional learning, mental health and allyship, such as “standing up to bullying,” Aud said.

To aid with implementing RJP, each school site will have “an adult champion ... for students,” Aud said, along with an equity team. The department also will look at each school’s “messaging” to see “if it’s coming from a restorative framework.”

The “work goes really deep,” Nguyen said. ◆