Youth restorative justice examined in Petaluma

If it wasn’t for restorative practices, Maria Cruz concedes that her struggles through high school would have been much greater.

Thankfully, she said, Casa Grande permitted its students to form their own “circles,” one of the most vital components of a thriving restorative school culture.

Cruz, 17, has taken on restorative justice as her senior project, and hopes to see it implemented not just at her school, but district-wide. That way, larger safety nets can catch struggling students, or children labeled as “troublemakers,” and provide an atmosphere that can potentially empower them to a greater chance for success.

“Honestly, we’re still learning and it’s been a struggle for everyone,” Cruz said. “But by bringing restorative justice into our campus, it can help so many others.”

At an Aqus Community Foundation meeting Monday, Cruz, along with several other community members, educators and advocates, explained how the burgeoning social science could benefit Petaluma, and detailed its success at local agencies and nonprofits.

Restorative justice, which falls under the larger umbrella of restorative practices, is a system of rehabilitation that brings an offender and victim together in a community setting to allow for reflection and repair, avoiding hasty punitive measures that sometimes cause greater harm.

Studies have been fairly positive, in favor of the restorative system, finding greater relief for victims and decreases in recidivism for wrongdoers – specifically for students of color, who are suspended and expelled at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers.

“Give a kid a voice instead of giving them a suspension,” said Mike Simpson, a retired educator and restorative practices trainer.

The audience at Aqus Cafe was filled with educators, school officials and residents eager to see what sort of disciplinary teachings they could implement right away.

Lindsey Burcina, 19, who became one of the youngest political candidates in the state last year when she ran for a school board seat in Santa Rosa, is releasing a restorative practices curriculum for teachers next month.

Now the co-director of curricula development at the Metta Center for Nonviolence, Burcina spoke about her experiences getting bullied as a child, and how the restorative system helped her transform from a disengaged student to a class leader at Elsie Allen High School.

It was there where she was part of the first restorative justice class in Sonoma County.

“That’s what restorative justice did for me, and that’s why I want to bring it here,” Burcina said. “It’s really changed my life, and I hope it can change the lives of others as well.”

Mentor Me, a local nonprofit that pairs at-risk youth with adult role models, has been accepting juvenile referrals from the Petaluma Police Department since September.

The diversion program takes students that were “reprimanded and released,” designed to help remorseful students avoid lasting penalties, and starts the process with conferences that fall under the restorative model.

The nonprofit anticipated 30 referrals during its first school year partnering with the police. In seven months, they’ve received 29, said program coordinator Deborah Dalton.

“It’s a way for us to keep these kids, until they’re 21 years old, in a continuity of care,” she said. “We’re diving in deep and understanding what they have going on in their lives, and we’re creating restorative plans to help them repair the harm.”

A recent study by economists at Brown University and MIT found that incarcerating young people increased the probability that they would go to jail as an adult by 23 percent.

Dan Miller, one of Petaluma Police’s two school resource officers, said about two-thirds of his citations have been referrals to Mentor Me since an injection of grant funds allowed the SRO program to return last fall.

“We have a little bit of a say in the outcome of what a young kid’s life can be in the future,” he said. “I always think I can fix something. If I see something in a kid, I want to take that on, and it doesn’t necessarily mean putting them in handcuffs and dropping them off (at juvenile hall).”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)

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