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Some Santa Rosa schools explore alternatives to student suspensions

Piner High School assistant principal Tim Zalunardo has worked to reduce suspensions and expulsions through a restorative justice program.

(John Burgess/The Press Democrat)
Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 6:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 3:14 p.m.

Somewhere in the midst of the boy’s apologies, his promise to straighten out his life and his acknowledgment that smoking pot and ditching class had caused harm for others and not just himself, his father began to cry.

“He was heartbroken,” the boy said, remembering the look on his father’s face. “They raised me better than this.”

The confrontation between father and son was not a private talk behind closed doors but an exchange in front of an audience of school administrators, teachers and strangers who agreed to participate in a restorative justice conference with the boy who was on the brink of expulsion from high school.

“I saw parents that were highly affected by his behaviors. I saw a Hispanic father cry, which you don’t see very often,” said special education teacher Trish Delzell. “I saw a mom be at a loss of words — the potential to lose their child.”

The conference was led by counselors from Restorative Resources, a nonprofit organization working on a select number of Santa Rosa City Schools campuses and paid for with grant funding. The group works with students and administrators to keep kids on campus to face what they have done and make amends for their wrongdoing.

The student, caught in November after having smoked marijuana, went through the restorative justice process this school year.

The sophomore at a Santa Rosa high school did not want his name used but agreed to share his history of suspensions and how he worked his way back from the brink of expulsion.

It was assistant principal Tim Zalunardo who confronted the student first. On a November day, the boy was clearly under the influence so he was taken to the office and his father was called. He was put on immediate suspension and the expulsion process was set in motion.

But Zalunardo, a member of the school district’s newly formed task force to study positive student behavior interventions, asked the teen to participate in the 12-week restorative justice program. There was no promise of how his expulsion order would be affected.

“We are trying to do things different than in the past,” Zalunardo said. “You can’t suspend and expel your way out of the problem. You have to look at student behavior, see what they are doing wrong and keep them accountable.”

The boy began attending meetings every week. He wrote letters his parents, to his teachers, to Zalunardo. He was asked to sit in a circle and face the same people he harmed with his drug use and truancy.

“I felt like I had a 1,000-pound rock on my chest. When I opened up, I felt relieved. I don’t have to worry about it no more,” he said.

“It actually changed my life,” he said. “I felt grown up. All of a sudden I felt it. I like it.”

The conversations, while uncomfortable, made an impact, he said.

“I’m not a bad kid; I can get along with other people,” he said. “You can actually get to me and I can change.”

Delzell, the special ed teacher, didn’t know the boy before the conferences began. She knows him now and she credits Zalunardo for being a key player in the teen’s progress.

“Zalunardo was very emotional about it, even before the circle occurred,” she said. “He’s very invested.”

“(The student) was just fixated on him,” she said of Zalunardo telling the people in the circle how the boy’s behavior affected the wider school community. “There was an impact there.”

And not just on the boy. His parents were moved not only by their own disappointment but by their son’s remorse, and by the commitment of Zalunardo and others.

The boy invested so intensely in the Restorative Resources program that the school staff members who sought his expulsion went before the Santa Rosa School Board to ask that their original recommendation be overturned.

“I felt very nervous,” the boy said of making his case before the seven-member school board. “I thought they were going to judge me and then turn me down. But they heard me out.”

It was the first time the board had tossed out a recommendation for expulsion in years.

“I was really impressed with him,” trustee Laura Gonzalez said. “He got what he had done and he got that he hurt people.”

“When you expel kids, you are really saying ‘These kids are failures; they can’t function here,’” she said.

For Delzell, the student she got to know during restorative justice conferences is no longer a stranger to her on campus.

“He’s got integrity, that what this is. He’s got honor,” she said of his investment in a program entirely foreign to him a few months ago. “It touched him. A bunch of people spoke for him. To have the board recognize that and not do the whole rubber stamp, ‘This is how we do it. Bam.’”

The boy has reinvested not only at school, but at home. He goes out less; he’s working out more. He has his eye on attending Santa Rosa Junior College.

Asked if he talks to his dad about the mistakes he has made, he said he no longer has to.

“I’ve come back,” he said. “I’ve made him proud. I don’t have to tell him; he sees it.”

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield)

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