More than 200 people rallying Wednesday against excessive suspensions and expulsions were buoyed by a commitment by Fresno Unified school leaders to embrace an alternative approach to discipline.
Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said during a special afternoon workshop that he would dedicate money in the district's coming budget to restorative justice programs.
Restorative justice is a way of addressing bad behavior through conflict resolution instead of punitive measures, such as expulsions. It's been supported by increasing numbers of students and teachers in Fresno.
"What an amazing victory today," said Miriam Hernandez, 18, one of the organizers of Wednesday's rally. But "we will keep making sure they follow through."
Hernandez was flanked by dozens, young and old, gathered outside the Fresno Unified School District board chamber in downtown Fresno to press for changes to district discipline policies.
The activists noted high rates of suspensions and expulsions in Fresno schools, and said punishment only fueled dropouts without addressing behavioral problems.
More than one in 10 Fresno Unified students are likely to be suspended during their schooling, according to data from the University of California at Los Angeles. The rates are higher for minorities.
A sign held by one student at the rally read, "Keep us in school."
Advocates for restorative justice have been working for more than two years to limit suspensions and expulsions in Fresno schools.
At a workshop on district discipline policies Wednesday, school board trustees urged administrators to implement restorative justice practices.
Some of the district's schools, such as Yosemite Middle School, already offer programs that target the behavior of troubled students. But Hanson pledged to expand the strategy.
"We can do things to help students get back on track by showing we believe in them," he said.
Administrators acknowledge that change won't happen overnight. Adopting policies that replace harsh punishment with mediation and counseling requires buy-in from teachers, a curriculum and money to create the programs.
Hanson said alternative programs would be implemented gradually. Which schools and grade levels will see it first is yet to be decided.
Reedley Police Chief Joe Garza told Hanson and school board trustees at Wednesday's board meeting that restorative justice practices were already in place at Reedley High School and they're working.
"We are getting our kids to take ownership for what they are doing," Garza said.
In less than a year, suspensions have dropped nearly 40%, he said.
Some, however, are advising caution.
"I don't care what the child's situation may be," said Gary Alford, associate executive director of the Fresno Teachers Association. "They don't have the right to assault a teacher."
In other news
Fresno Unified school board trustees renewed the charter of the School of Unlimited Learning (SOUL).
The downtown Fresno charter school has been in operation since 1998. The renewed charter gives it another five years.
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