The Restorative Justice League of Le Grand High School jumps in to save the day

A teen starts a fistfight with a fellow student. Another brings alcohol to school. Another urinates on a fellow student’s locker, and a fight ensues.

Three years ago at Le Grand High School, in Le Grand, CA, these students would have been immediately expelled or suspended. This year, they weren’t. They didn’t miss any classes. They made amends. They learned from their mistakes.

In 2010-2011, Principal Javier Martinez suspended 49 students and expelled six. Last year, he suspended 15 and expelled only one.

This school year, with the help of the Restorative Justice League, he’s going for double zeros.

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Le Grand High School is tucked on the edge of a town so tiny it has not one traffic light. Orchards and fields

that feed a nation surround it, creating a 15-mile physical – and psychological — moat between the town of Le Grand (rhymes with “free land”) and the closest Central California city, Merced.

It would be so easy to look at this dot of a place and assume that nothing cutting-edge is going on at its high school. But that would be so, so wrong.

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At Le Grand High School, all 487 students are given a tablet computer for the year. They’re free to use cell phones (appropriately). One-third of the students participate in after-school programs, including martial arts and cooking. Where there used to be regular gang brawls, only two fights have occurred over the last two years. Half of last year’s graduates attend college.

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The school, which also draws students from the nearby communities of Planada and Plainsburg, isn’t wealthy. In fact, the high school is 100% “free and reduced” — education-speak for the fact that students come from farm families (workers and owners) that live just above, at, or below poverty level. But Martinez is a grant-writing machine. Over the last five years, he’s brought nearly $2 million to the school to support technology and programs for the students and their parents, including a restorative justice program.

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At the core of this restorative justice program is the Restorative Justice League. Starting off as a dozen students flailing uncomfortably with their mission, they evolved into a tight-knit band that jumped in to help resolve a major school crisis. In doing so, they became the tipping point in the school’s decision to jettison its zero tolerance policy, and replace it with a supportive approach to school discipline.

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It’s January 15, 2013, and the members of the Restorative Justice League erupt, flounce, drift, or stride into the classroom of Andre Griggs, who coordinates the league, the after-school program and the parent outreach program. They’re all seniors with at least one other characteristic in common: They’re willing to have Griggs push them out of their comfort zone this year.

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Andre Griggs, after-school program coordinator, meets with the members of Le Grand High School’s first Restorative Justice League in January 2013. Senior Roman Hernandez is in the foreground.

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He’s teaching them to become involved with the individuals and the community around them in a way that makes them squirm. At the beginning of the school year, he started them off slowly by having them watch movies like “Pay It Forward”, and figure out what they would do in real-life ethical dilemmas, as presented in the ABC News’ series What Would You Do?.

They trained to become peer mediators by role-playing made-up conflicts, and by discussing the confrontations they saw at school and developing strategies to intervene appropriately. Then Griggs gave them assignments, such as talking with a student they had never spoken to. Each took a different approach. For example, Briana Biagi talked with a fellow student at a college entrance exam, while Yuhuen Ceja texted to as many of the students as she could: “Who wants to be my friend?” “That got a lot of people talking to me,” she said.

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2012-2013 Restorative Justice League member Briana Biagi returned this year to help train the 2013-2014 league students.

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Over the December school break, Griggs asked them to help three people they didn’t know. All 12 followed through; some were braver than others. At one end was the student who donated money to a charitable organization. At the other end were students who risked face-to-face interaction with strangers: Two helped out at a local food and toy drive. Another helped a lost child find his mother in a store packed with Christmas shoppers.

Now that the students are four months into the training, says Griggs, they’re taking more ownership. They chose a name for themselves, a logo, and created a skit to present to other students,” he says.

In January, the process seems painfully slow, without a clear goal in sight.

By the end of the school year, it’s a different story.

By June, the Restorative Justice League students have trained 50 juniors, sophomores and freshman to be mentors for the 2013-2014 school year’s incoming freshmen. They hosted a restorative justice conference for students from surrounding school districts. And, they have seven interventions under their belts.

Their first intervention was for a fellow senior, a gang member who got into a fight and broke his hand. At an intervention panel, the Restorative Justice League members listen to students who have committed an offense that would normally result in suspension or expulsion, offer ideas for restitution, and, if the students agree, follow up to make sure they carry through. In the case of this gang member, they asked him to write a formal apology, to clean up after all school dances, and to become involved in something positive after school. The process uncorked his creativity and changed his life. He founded the Modeling Club – a fashion club that attracted 20 student members who learned how to do photography and magazine shoots, and put on modeling events for the school. He’s now attending Merced College.

In the video above, the members of the 2012-2013 Restorative Justice League at Le Grand High School demonstrate how restorative justice works in their high school. The problem — a student creates a disturbance in the classroom, even after the teacher has reminded the student of the respect agreement he signed. The two students involved meet with the teacher after school to review the options of the peacemaking process. The students choose the third option, to review the event and try to work out an agreement with a supervisor. A supervisor leads the first part of the peacemaking process. The Restorative Justice League is called in to offer alternatives to the traditional approach of suspending the students: to apologize to each other, and to help the teacher after school. Students follow through: they apologize to each other. The Restorative Justice League follows up with the teacher to find out if the students have performed their duties. RJL students: Briana Biagi, Jonathan Bravo-Zamora, Cesar Caalvillo Aguilar, Yuhuen Ceja, Stephanie Granados, Alfredo Gutierrez Perez, Roman Hernandez, Ajiah Hollis, Lina Martinez, Norma Martinez, Marivel Mercado, and Marycruz Vargas Vera.

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Another intervention took place for two students who fought in the boys’ locker room after one urinated on the other’s locker. The Restorative Justice League suggested that they work together with the custodian to clean up the locker room, the lockers, and the restrooms, and to apologize to one another and to the custodian.

“It’s been very successful,” says Griggs. “Now the two boys are best friends and they learned to appreciate the custodian’s work.”

But the turning point for the school came when, prior to an exam, two students opened a teacher’s desk drawer and took a photo of the test. After the test, the teacher found out. Not knowing who had seen the test, he failed the entire class. All the students in the class were told they would not graduate.

The Restorative Justice League decided they wanted – they needed — to become involved in what had become a school crisis. They developed a case for why they should be involved, why the decision of the teacher was unfair, developed alternative suggestions, and then presented their appeal to the principal and the teacher. The teacher was convinced to reconsider his decision. He voided the exam, used the scores the students had prior to the test for final grades, the two students who obtained the test confessed, and rest of the class graduated.

“Because of that experience,” says Griggs, “we’re now working on formally changing the school discipline policy and implementing restorative justice.”

This is the result Javier Martinez had hoped for. “We want to empower our kids, and let them be the agents of change.”

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Three years ago, as in many communities across California, gang activity plagued Le Grand High School, says Donna Alley, superintendent of Le Grand Union High School District. “Kids were trying to wear colors to school, a student was shot away from school on a weekend,” she recalls. “We needed to have kids comfortable about coming to us, and a way for them to make amends for things they did wrong other than detentions, suspension or expulsions. Those don’t change behavior, and we wanted their behavior to change.”

She, Martinez, Griggs and a handful of others had come to the conclusion that the punitive approach to discipline was ineffective, as the data was clearly showing. “We are so used to a punitive system,” says Martinez. “We send students to the office and it is expected that a kid will be immediately suspended or expelled. But that doesn’t work.” The student misses classes, falls behind, and may not catch up. The student also has no opportunity to learn from the mistake.

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After-school program coordinator Andre Griggs, left, and Javier Martinez, Le Grand High School Principal (right) have worked closely together to integrate restorative justice practices into the school.

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“We need to know what that individual is going through in order to help them out,” Martinez continues. “For example, the kid may be having a rough time at home because his parents are getting divorced. I’m a believer in second chances. What I want to do is figure out how to help the student deal with that problem so it doesn’t happen again.”

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Javier Martinez, principal of Le Grand High School, talks with a student. Martinez knows every student’s story and wants every student to succeed.

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When a representative of the California Endowment told them about restorative justice and volunteered funding to implement a program, the school jumped at the offer, but not just because it took a different approach to school discipline. It also fit like a glove with two other major initiatives the school was implementing to engage students and their families – an after-school program and a parent outreach program.

The after-school program, supported by a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education 21st Century Community Learning Center program, provides academic classes for students who need extra help in subjects such as math, English, civics, and history. It also funds several skills classes (culinary arts, cosmetics, multimedia production), karate and other martial arts, dramatic arts and transitional living, which focuses on health and transition skills.

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Students go through stretching exercises prior to working out in a martial arts class at Le Grand High School in Le Grand, CA.

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A grant from the Parent Institute for Quality Education supports several free classes for parents, including English-as-a-second-language, Zumba, and how to help their children navigate the confusing path to apply for college and scholarships. The school also plans to purchase outdoor exercise equipment and redo their outdoor track for the use of parents.

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“A few years ago, I would have been fired for opening our campus to the community,” says Martinez. “But this idea of granting community members access to our school to improve the health of our residents came about because obesity is one of our major concerns – 44% of Merced County residents are obese.”

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Sid Rayford coaches members of Le Grand High School’s martial arts team.

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If Martinez’ role is grant-writer, change agent and fearless leader, Griggs says his roll is to be a connector: “I connect teachers with students. Students with teachers. Community with school. And I promote the programs.”

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Amy Rayford teaches one of the martial arts classes at Le Grand High School. She also teaches culinary arts.

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Of the three programs, it’s not a surprise that the most difficult for some teachers to accept is restorative justice. “We understand that it’s difficult to change,” says Martinez, “especially in such a drastic form. We’re asking them to drop everything they know about how to discipline students, everything their parents’ generation knew about disciplining students.”

They began by bringing in Ron and Roxanne Claassen, the gurus of the restorative-justice-in-education movement, and authors of the book, “Discipline That Restores“. In March 2011, the Claassens gave the entire staff an overview. The school board passed a resolution to support the restorative justice program, and in the spring of 2012, the first of three groups of teachers spent four days with the Claassens while substitute teachers took over their classrooms. The last group did their training in the spring of 2013.

“We’ve taken it in chunks,” says Donna Alley. “We want to make sure we’re all on the same page together, and if there’s any pushback, that we’re able to deal with that.”

And pushback they still have, even as the 2013-2014 school year began. One of the main issues was not having someone to immediately send a student to for help in calming down or working out an issue, especially since Martinez was not always available.  But this year, because of another two-year, $150,000 grant, they were able to add the Thinkery, and hire someone to staff it.

Here’s how the Thinkery fits into the restorative justice process:

At the beginning of the school year, teachers and students develop written respect agreements. The students agree to respect the teachers. The teachers agree to respect the students. The students agree to respect their environment – the school. Everyone signs them.

If there’s a disagreement between the teacher and the student, or the student behaves inappropriately in class, the teacher reminds the student of the respect agreement. If the student cannot adhere to the agreement, he or she is sent to the Thinkery to talk things out with Fernando Maciel, the Thinkery’s conflict resolution leader. If the teacher and the student need to engage in a mediation session, Maciel handles it now, instead of Martinez.

When the offense is serious enough, Martinez calls in the Restorative Justice League. So far this year, the 10 seniors have done one intervention, after a student brought alcohol to school. After meeting with the RJL members, the student agreed to do 50 hours of community service and enroll in an Alcoholics Anonymous program.

“This is more beneficial than expelling him,” says Martinez.

Restorative justice doesn’t cover all offenses. Bringing a gun or a knife to school is still an automatic expulsion, explains Martinez. “You’re out of here. But for minor offenses, that’s when restorative justice really matters.”

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This goal of making sure every student is successful is a sea change, and it’s slow, slow, slow. But Alley, Martinez and Griggs want to make sure it’s solid.

“Over the last two years, we’ve changed the way that we discipline students,” says Martinez. “We’re firm, but respectful of the student’s feelings. We listen. We don’t shout. It’s taking time, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

And the results, so far, are tangible.

2009-2010 —  49 suspensions, 14 expulsions

2010-2011 —  51 suspensions, 6 expulsions

2011-2012 —  33 suspensions, 4 expulsions

2012-2013 —  15 suspensions, 1 expulsions

When Martinez became principal in 2009, he says, “teachers used to send me students because they didn’t have a pencil.” He shakes his head. Now there are also fewer referrals because the teachers who have bought into the program are getting better at working things out with students in the classroom.

The students are changing, too. “We are seeing a change in culture, where students are accountable not only to teachers and the administration, but also to themselves,” says Martinez. “The mere fact that they’re trying to prevent fights from happening is significant. When somebody starts arguing with someone else, rather than gathering around and instigating a fight, they try to put a stop to it.”

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The 2013-2014 Restorative Justice League. Front row, left to right: Julieta Garcia, Carolina Vazquez, Marlene Lara, Cynthia Bravo, Guadalupe Avila, Denise Flores, Maria Pantoja, Daisy Trujillo. Back row, left to right: Andre Griggs, RJL coordinator, Jerome Raspberry, RJL youth engagement coordinator, and Briana Biagi, RJL youth advisor who was a member of last year’s inaugural RJL. RJL members Alyssa Hart and Maria Corona are missing from the photo.

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This year’s Restorative Justice League students are advancing the program even further. Griggs hired one of last year’s members to help him redo the curriculum, and they’re moving faster through their training. They’ve started a freshman apprenticeship program, so that students can develop restorative justice leadership skills earlier rather than waiting until their senior year. And they’re focusing on prevention, so that there will be fewer interventions.

They’re also taking a step beyond restorative justice, which has a serious limitation: It focuses on students who erupt angrily, inappropriately, or are “willfully defiant”. But many students are “invisible” – too shy, afraid or depressed to speak out or engage in class or after-school activities. This is the flip side of how kids deal with toxic stress they may be experiencing in their homes or neighborhoods. These students often drop out of school and never live up to their potential. So this year, Griggs, Martinez and other teachers are identifying “the invisibles”, as Griggs calls them, and asking the Restorative Justice League and the mentors they’ve trained to start interacting with the “invisible” students to show them that the school is a safe place where they can trust others and get help when they need it.

Although the restorative justice program has been the most difficult to implement – because it is new and unfamiliar – it works because the after-school program and the parent outreach program also exist, says Griggs. “The highest crime rate and the time when most pregnancies happen are from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Tying the after-school program to restorative justice makes each program successful. And involving the community reinforces support from the parents.

Griggs hopes that all three programs help teachers understand that their influence and the school’s influence extend beyond the classroom, into student’s lives and into their homes. “We really need to help out the students,” he says. “The community needs to see that this school cares, and that bringing in their involvement is important, too.”

“This isn’t a program change,” he says. “It’s a culture change.”

Oh….and the first members of the Restorative Justice League? They’re all in their first year of college. Most are the first in their families to do so.

This is part of an investigative series into “right doing” – how some schools are moving from a punitive to a supportive, compassionate approach to school discipline. The series includes profiles of schools in Reedley, Fresno, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Concord, Vallejo and San Diego, CA; and in Spokane, WA, and Brockton, MA. The series is funded by the California Endowment. 

15 responses

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  12. We love love love love what you are doing at Le Grand and have shared the article with our mailing list.
    We are a small nonprofit doing all we can to change the paradigm of school discipline in California from one based on punishment to one based on Restorative Justice and Social Emotional Learning.
    We are here to support teachers, students, parents, communities in making these important changes. The Restorative Justice League has proved that compassion and common sense discipline really do work! I hope you can come up to Sacramento and share your story with our legislators!
    Love from Restorative Schools Vision Project (RSVP) restorativeschoolsproject@gmail.com

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