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Marin schools lean on 'restorative justice' in difficult era

Marin Independent Journal - 12/10/2023

Dec. 10—Don Carney knew when he got the word from Marin County Superior Court Judge Beverly Wood that a big test was on the horizon.

"Everyone would like to give restorative justice a chance here," Wood wrote in a Nov. 7, 2022, email to Carney, executive director of Youth Transforming Justice in San Rafael.

She was referring to an Oct. 19, 2022, battle between Redwood High School student James Brahnham and social studies teacher Derek DeNardo. After the incident, which was caught on video and disseminated on social media, Brahnham was arrested by police.

Only 17 at the time, Brahnham could have faced charges and further legal consequences. Neither Wood nor Carney thought the conflict could be healed by more participation in the criminal justice system.

Carney's organization, a successor to the Marin County Youth Court, uses something called restorative justice circles as an alternative to, or an addition to, traditional discipline measures such as suspension, expulsion or arrest. The nonprofit, with a budget of about $650,000, employs six staff members to work with schools and help run the circles.

Restorative circles allow victims of crimes or other incidents, such as hate speech, to face the perpetrators and reveal how much harm was caused. The perpetrators then have a chance to acknowledge their mistakes.

With the recent rise in hate speech — including antisemitic, racist, homophobic or Islamophobic incidents — Marin schools are including restorative circles to determine the most appropriate reaction to each incident, said Tyler Graff, executive director of secondary education at San Rafael City Schools.

Graff said suspensions, expulsions or arrests might be necessary in the immediate moment to restore safety. But the San Rafael district, which has worked with Carney's organization for almost a decade, often will follow up with a restorative circle, or even decide that a restorative circle would be better in the first place than a suspension.

"I think we need to draw a line when it comes to student safety," Graff said. "We need to respond as quickly as possible to anything that does come up."

Graff said the restorative circles, if both parties agree to participate, can work well with students because they get a chance to be seen, heard and understood by others.

"Every time something happens with a student, even though they're 16 years old and 6 feet tall, you've got to remember that they're kids," Graff said.

"They take action physically and they make mistakes," he added. "We aim for them to learn from their mistakes, but with the lowest stakes possible — except if student safety is involved."

Carney notes that while suspension can address the immediate issue, it doesn't address the cause. Youths today are exposed to what Carney describes as a "pejorative" culture where name calling, slurs and four-letter words are commonplace in social media, politics, world events and music.

Restorative circles have the potential to alter that dynamic, while suspensions do not, Carney said.

"We're not going to suspend our way out of it," Carney said. "We have to get kids of different cultures in conversation with each other."

Carney arranged for Brahnham's and DeNardo's restorative circle on Nov. 18, 2022, which was Brahnham's 18th birthday. From an initial mistrust of each other, the student and the teacher moved into expressing something new: compassion and empathy, according to Carney.

"It was one of the highlights of my career," said Carney, who has been doing the work in various capacities for more than 20 years.

At the end of the circle, DeNardo and Brahnham embraced, tears in their eyes. Afterward, with each other's blessings, DeNardo returned to his job and Brahnham returned to school. The wound had been repaired.

"I very much appreciated James' willingness to participate and to be vulnerable," DeNardo wrote in an email to the judge later on the day of the circle.

"I would like to reiterate my support for the restorative plan that we agreed to today," he added. "I do not want James to be charged with any crimes related to the incident. I support him returning to Redwood High as soon as possible."

Other Marin schools agree that restorative circles have a place in reacting to incidents, but they do not replace accountability, said Brett Geithman, superintendent of the Larkspur-Corte Madera School District.

Geithman said his district recently received two grants that cover behavioral interventions such as restorative circles. The district received a $900,000 school violence prevention grant and another grant to cover the cost of teacher training in restorative circles.

"While we have had some staff trained previously, it is important to provide a refresher along with an opportunity to train new staff members," Geithman said. "We use restorative practices not as an alternative to discipline, but rather a venue for repair after appropriate action has been taken."

Like the San Rafael school district, the Miller Creek School District is working closely with Carney's group, said Becky Rosales, the superintendent.

"We have to expect that conflict will surface in schools," Rosales said. "When conflict does occur, we know that using restorative approaches reduces recidivism, builds relationships and increases learning."

Miller Creek is also working with Youth Transforming Justice to train staff and students in ways to "engage in dialogue, reflection and repair," Rosales said. The training "elevates individual voice and builds community," she said.

Jennifer Larson, the principal of San Marin High School in the Novato Unified School District, agrees.

"NUSD has worked with a number of community partners to implement and build our capacity to utilize restorative practices as means for prevention and intervention," Larson said. "We have found that when restorative practices are used, students respond positively."

Tara Taupier, superintendent of the Tamalpais Union High School District, said the it is employing restorative practices in the wake of recent incidents. In late September, the school and community were outraged by a racial slur on a video that circulated at Tamalpais High School.

"Meaningful and impactful restorative justice circles require that all parties engage in a process to prepare to fully and authentically participate in the circle," Taupier said. "This takes time."

She said the circles do not replace disciplinary consequences.

"Restorative justice circles serve to address and repair the harm," Taupier said. "They are in addition to accountability for one's actions and not in place of it."


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