It was a case of teenage boys being teenage boys that led Natthan Sherriff to spend an afternoon cleaning the locker room at Le Grand High School.
“Me and my friend were like messing around with the others’ lockers,” Sherriff says. “I told him I peed on his locker and I was just kidding, and then he actually peed on mine so I punched him.”
Sherriff and his friend, Esaiah Villalobos, might have been suspended at another school. But Le Grand High School resolves conflicts through a disciplinary approach called restorative justice.
Sheriff and Villalobos both received in-school suspension. Then, on a Wednesday in May, they slid on some latex gloves, and prepared to make amends with each other, and school custodian Miguel Puente.
“You start right here, right here on the toilets,” Puente says, giving the boys instructions. “Just spray it inside and out and just wipe it down, disinfect it.”
Scrubbing toilets, sinks, and showers forced the boys to realize the consequences of their actions, says Andre Griggs, who coordinates the restorative justice program at Le Grand.
“To just send them home and suspend them, they’re not really thinking about their actions and what they did and who they affected,” Griggs says.
“And so them helping him clean up their locker, helping them with the cleanup of the floors and the toilets, it kind of gives them an appreciation of what the custodians do every single day.”
About 500 students attend Le Grand High School. Still, this small school is helping to pioneer an alternative approach to classroom discipline that is being considered in much larger districts across the state.
The concept is that students and staff benefit from discussing acts of misconduct, making them right, and finding ways to prevent them from happening again. At Le Grand, a youth panel, called the Justice League, is an important part of the process.
“What we do is when two kids are in an argument, we kind of just come together and we solve it,” says recent graduate Briana Biagi, who was on the panel this year. “I always mention the word ‘student advocates’ because that’s pretty much what we are. That’s what we’re here for. We’re like lawyers for our classmates.”
She says the Justice League advocates for solutions.
“We have them kind of summarize and talk about what happened in their perspective, and we go back and forth until everybody comes to sort of an understanding,” she says. “And we all brainstorm and come together and think about what we can do to fix this problem now and prevent it from happening later on.”
It’s an alternative to traditional forms of punishment at schools.
“We were having, just as any other school, suspension and expulsion rates that were for us I’d consider high,” says Javier Martinez, the principal at Le Grand.
He says last year, before the restorative justice program, the school averaged 50 to 60 suspensions a year, and 15 or 16 expulsions. This year, there were just 10 suspensions, and one expulsion.
According to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, traditional suspension increases a student’s probability of dropping out. That’s one reason Martinez has embraced restorative justice.
“My job is to make sure the students graduate, rather than expelling them,” he says.
Ron Claassen founded the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program of the Central Valley. Today, he’s the director of restorative justice programs at Fresno Pacific University.
“If students actually agree to first of all, they recognize what happen, the acknowledge that, and then they repair the damage between them and they decide not to do it again, the likelihood of them doing it again is very low,” he says.
He’s seen how restorative justice prevents young people from committing multiple offenses within the criminal justice system and schools.
“In a punitive system, the assumption is fear will change people,” he says. “In a restorative system, the assumption is the right relationship will change a person.”
Earlier this year, Stefani Rosas and a friend were caught – twice - ditching their internships at the Merced Mall.
“Our principal told us we weren’t going to be able to walk for the graduation ceremony and at first we didn’t really care,” Rosas says.
But she says it was a big deal for their families.
“Both of us are going to be the first people in our families to be able to walk at graduation, to be able to receive that high school diploma, so it was really embarrassing for our families, too,” she says.
They took their case to the Board of Trustees and the Justice League. They apologized and agreed to perform community service, including cleaning the cafeteria.
“And right now, with this, we can fix what we’re doing and also getting our punishment, but also kind of still bringing a little bit of pride back in with our family and knowing we worked so hard to get this diploma and we’re actually going to be able to do it,” she says.
Beyond its impact on individual students, Principal Martinez says restorative justice has helped change the school culture.
“Students are more eager to stop problems before they actually occur,” Martinez says. “They feel they’re part of this new system, and in order for this new system to work, they’ve got to be active members within our school.”
Restorative justice has earned a passing grade at Le Grand this year. And the school was recently awarded a grant to expand the student training and mentoring component of the program. Fresno Unified will implement restorative justice concepts at some schools in the coming school year.