Foothill High School is poised to begin a program called Restorative Justice, which will allow the victim and perpetrator to meet and talk, surrounded by peers.
Pleasanton School Board Member Jamie Hintzke has been a proponent of the program for years. She's seen it at work as part of her day job at the Alameda County Center for Healthy Schools and Communities.
"If it's done correctly it can have a really profound effect on youth feeling empowered," Hintzke said.
Hintzke compared the process to how a tribe might handle justice. Like the tribe, she said, "You've got to work this stuff out, you've got to live together."
"In the old days, the village wise man or the elder would be the one who would convene a circle, there would be a talking stick -- each person goes around and shares," she said. "I think that in modern times we've lost the importance of what that feels like, to be living together in community. What does that mean? We've lost that."
As an example, Hintzke described a hypothetical situation where a student stole a laptop from a teacher and got caught.
Each party can invite someone to be part of the circle, so the student might choose his brother or a friend and the teacher might opt for a colleague. Students who are trained in restorative justice would round out the group.
A facilitator would typically begin, summing up: "Joey took this laptop from Mrs. Smith and we're here to talk about how that affects all of us," Hintzke said. A witness might describe what she or he saw.
"Then it would shift to a conversation where the teacher might say, 'When I walked into the classroom and I found out my laptop was gone, I felt really violated,'" Hintkze said. "The kid might say, 'I stole the laptop because I know your husband makes a lot of money.' They get a chance to talk about how they were affected personally."
Traditionally, she said, the student might get expelled and the teacher could harbor bad feelings.
Restorative justice, she said, "is not confrontational."
"It's more about everybody sharing their feelings about how the incident affected them, and because you're having this conversation, the healing can begin. The kid can hear from the teacher what it felt like to have her laptop stolen," Hintzke said. "It sounds touchy feely but that's what it is. But when we're dealing with human emotions, why aren't we dealing in a human way, in a touchy-feely way? What I've seen in schools that are using this is that people are moving beyond harm."
Late last year, Foothill received a $20,000 two-year grant to begin restorative justice at the school. Assistant Principal Rich Gorton said about 45% of the grant will go to adding counselor hours, with a bit less than 50% going for staff training and about 10% for materials, mainly books on how restorative justice works.
Foothill will conduct training for administrators, counselors and teachers on restorative circles, Gorton said.
"Really the main thing we're looking at is developing a common approach," he said. "Sometimes people have been trained in different mediation techniques, so this is to get everyone working on the same page with a common philosophy."
Restorative justice at Foothill will be what he described as "adult-facilitated mediation," although students will be involved.
He said the school recently tried an informal approach to restorative justice, around Thanksgiving, after the school had been awarded the grant but before school-wide training had begun. Gorton and a teacher had been to one training session not connected with the grant.
"We had a conflict where students were doing a collaborative project together outside of school and there was a disagreement about the equipment that was being used, who should have access to it -- it was a video camera," Gorton said. "During the course of that disagreement, I came in Monday morning and there was an email from a parent to say what had happened."
He got involved, doing some fact finding to find out who was responsible for the camera and what would have happened if the project wasn't completed on time. Some bullying was involved as well, and Gorton had to make the call whether to go the traditional route, with punitive measures, or take the new approach.
"I said, 'Let's just get everyone in the room and talk things out.' Just with having this conversation, we were able to avoid the punitive element. In the end, everyone saw everyone else's perspective," he said. "In that conversation, as people listened and talked and understood each other's perspective, there was an understanding. Everyone stood up and wished each other a happy Thanksgiving. One parent said, 'We need to more of this kind of communication.'"
There was, he said, no residual impact or hard feelings.
"We did kind of take a risk with it but it seemed like a worthwhile risk," Gorton said. "There were some questions about what would happen with grades, what would have happened with equipment. It seemed like it was worth that risk."
Amador Valley High School is watching how restorative justice at Foothill plays out, according to Amador Vice Principal Lori Vella, who worked at Foothill before transferring to Amador last year.
Foothill is also changing how it handles discipline. The school is creating a suspension diversion program, with a student court of trained volunteers.
"The consequences would be decided by a jury of their peers," Gorton said. "Literally, students would decide about what the consequences should be."
Foothill has already changed the way it deals with detentions.
"We used to have a Saturday school, usually two or three times a month, for students who had medium level discipline violations, things like a forged note or being off campus without a note," he said. "Saturday school was four hours on a Saturday and basically you would have to go in there and sit. You just basically had to do the time."
But that meant teachers were on campus by themselves with no administrators, with 25 to 30 students, and administrators decided that wasn't safe, should a fight break out or if a student had a medical emergency.
"We started thinking, 'Let's do this during the week, and let's add a restorative element to it, let's add a reflective essay,'" Gorton said.
"At first," he said, "We had a lot of students not show up."
About a quarter of the students didn't come; the school suspended them all, and had the parents come in.
That's turned around, Gorton said.
"The essays themselves, that's a little more interactive," he said. "I explain it in terms of 'school is your workplace.'" He gave an example of a student caught using a phone in class: "on a job, you would get written up or possibly even fired."
"Usually by the time we've finished that conversation, they understand they give up the right to use their cell phone, even if they're done with their work, because they're still on the clock, they're still in class," Gorton said.
Each student is given questions to answer, and the school's discipline clerk reviews those answers.
"The student turns in that form and that proves they were in that class, if they leave without turning it in, they don't get credit," Gorton said. If the student doesn't meet expectations, he said, "I would call that student in and have a conversation with them with the expectation that they redo the essay."
There are additional benefits as well.
"Sometimes other things come up," Gorton said, pointing to one student who didn't know how to log into her Zangle account, which shows assignments and grades. "Even when things don't go right, it's an opportunity for administrators to interact with students."
That, he said, gives students the opportunity to build positive relationships with adults.
Training on restorative circles is expected to begin within the next month, with training on suspension diversion, including student training, set to begin in April.