Education

Restorative justice? Teachers say McLane High classrooms are spiraling out of control

McLane High School was among the first in the Fresno Unified School District to try restorative practices in an effort to curb out-of-class discipline. But teachers there say the programs have led to out-of-control classrooms.
McLane High School was among the first in the Fresno Unified School District to try restorative practices in an effort to curb out-of-class discipline. But teachers there say the programs have led to out-of-control classrooms. ezamora@fresnobee.com

As Fresno Unified officials were praising McLane High School’s restorative justice program at a California School Boards Association conference earlier this month, teachers at the school were circulating a petition that says those same strategies have led to an unsafe campus plagued with fights and disruptions.

At least 70 of the 85 teachers at McLane High have signed a petition demanding a stricter and more consistent student discipline policy, as well as more say in how students are punished for their actions.

The teachers paint McLane as a place where there are constant disruptions and numerous on-campus fights and where teachers are verbally assaulted. They point to an incident earlier this year in which the school resource officer was severely injured while breaking up a fight among students. A Fresno police spokesman confirmed that the officer was kicked in the head by a student, and required several eye surgeries.

“This is unfair to students who come to school ready to learn and the teachers who are ready to engage them,” the petition states. “Our students are losing valuable classroom instructional time, which is depriving them of their right to an education, decreasing their chances at success in college and careers, and affecting the morale of staff members. These are not new concerns, as they have been raised by staff and dismissed by administration for years.”

Fresno Unified administrators say restorative programs are working, and one trustee cites lower numbers of suspensions and expulsions as proof.

I rarely call for help, as do many of my colleagues, because nothing is done, and the student returns more angry with us or even louder.

McLane High teacher Jessica Ketchum

Starting in 2014, schools in the McLane High region became the first in the district to implement restorative practices: strategies that aim to fix issues at the heart of student misbehavior, instead of merely kicking students out of classrooms.

While suspensions and expulsions at Fresno Unified have dramatically decreased since then, some teachers say the pressure to curb disciplinary action has led to zero consequences for students, and out-of-control classrooms.

“There is not a well-defined plan for dealing with student misbehavior, discipline is not consistently enforced, and there is a lack of communication on disciplinary issues. Students are returned to class without consequence after assaulting teachers, both verbally and physically,” the petition states. “When students face no accountability measures, it undermines the authority of all teachers, and creates a negative campus culture.  We, the staff of McLane High School, are no longer willing to accept this culture.”

McLane High teacher Jessica Ketchum says the programs have backfired. Just last week, when she called for a school resource officer for help with an alleged theft, she says she heard one student tell another: “Don’t worry, they won’t do anything.”

Ketchum says she called for help four times within an hour for the students to be removed from her class, but ultimately, they were not disciplined.

“Students have little to lose, and it would appear that they have become skilled at making the system work for them,” she said. “I rarely call for help, as do many of my colleagues, because nothing is done, and the student returns more angry with us or even louder.”

8,232Fresno Unified students suspended in 2014-15 school year

Michael Clark, who has taught at McLane for 11 years, says restorative justice can work, but it’s not being implemented correctly at McLane.

“A student can say ‘f--- you’ and we’re told that’s just his personality. The students do the same things over and over again, and we respond in the same way over and over again. When we were made into a pilot school for restorative justice, we were told it wouldn’t be this way,” Clark said.

“We have a lot of teachers that believe in the restorative model – it’s just not being implemented properly. How many times do you get kicked until you say, ‘OK, I’m not going to do this anymore?’ 

Fresno Unified Trustee Christopher De La Cerda, who represents the McLane High region, said he never has heard such criticism of the school’s restorative practices. He says that declining numbers of suspensions and expulsions, and an increase in graduation rates, is proof that the programs are working.

“For me, the success with our students is what’s important, and we’re having success there. The data confirms that restorative practices at McLane are working as we intended it to work. (The petition) conflicts with what I’ve seen,” De La Cerda said.

“Restorative justice is not a curriculum where you say, ‘Here’s a book and this is what we’re doing.’ It’s something that is fully integrated, and it takes all the staff to be a part of it and to buy in. It’s going to continue to mold itself and grow, and we have to adjust it with each school. If we don’t nurture it, it’s going to die.”

The data confirms that restorative practices at McLane are working as we intended it to work.

FUSD Trustee Christopher De La Cerda

In May, Fresno Unified trustees Carol Mills and Brooke Ashjian joined the Fresno Teachers Association in calling for stricter discipline policies after several teachers and administrators were injured stopping fights over the course of a few months. Then, they called for an expansion of alternative schools that focus on providing psychological support and behavioral intervention.

Mills said Friday those concerns from teachers are still there.

“I’m hearing from teachers who say they are retiring early because they cannot teach with severely disruptive students in the classroom who need to be in a different setting,” she said.

“Restorative justice can be a benefit, but I don’t think that what we’re implementing is restorative justice. You have to actually restore justice – you have to acknowledge that there are victims of inappropriate behavior, and the student engaged in that behavior has to understand that was inappropriate. The concept of restorative justice is supposed to have students make it right by their victims.”

Fresno Unified spokesman Miguel Arias called the McLane petition “relatively vague” but said the district is working with teachers.

“There has been open dialogue with those that signed it to better understand their concerns,” he wrote in an email. “We’re confident the items raised will be resolved in the course of normal business at McLane.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

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