PLEASANTON -- The old days of tossing kids in detention with nothing to do is going the way of the buggy whip at Foothill High School.

The school is shaking up its discipline system with a new philosophy called restorative justice.

"We're moving from a punitive program to one where we can support the students in making better decisions," said Rich Gorton, vice principal

Foothill was awarded a two-year $16,000 grant from Alameda County to staff counselors, train teachers and buy supplies for the new restorative justice system. The first step, Gorton noted, is to spread the word on campus that detention has a whole new style. The old style of detention, Saturday school, will be replaced with after-school detentions and renamed the Foothill After-School Character Trait Support, or FACTS, program.

"We're changing Saturday school from four hours on Saturday to two hours after school twice a week," he said. "Saturday school was kind of like being in jail. Students went in for four hours and just sat there."

It's high time schools ditch the old system in favor of restorative justice, Jamie Yee Hintzke, a Pleasanton school board trustee, said.

"I'm not convinced that the old method is effective and works," Yee Hintzke said. "I've asked for data to show me otherwise, and there isn't any out there. In the best interest of our kids and our community, we need to do things differently."

The new after-school detention with restorative justice puts kids to work writing a reflective essay. Students are given three writing prompts that make them admit to what they did, explain why they did it and reflect on what they would do differently.

"The idea behind restorative justice is that you face up to what you did," Gorton said. "It's not just some sort of arbitrary punishment or consequence. It's really owning up to whatever choice it is that you made."

The FACTS program is for students who commit particular offenses such as talking back to teachers and being a first-time cheater. Students who forge documents, such as signing a parent's name, and second-time cell phone offenders are also subject to detention.

Foothill's program, funded by Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services, is a pilot program for Pleasanton. Oakland schools have used the method for a few years. Gorton said the concept of restorative justice is somewhat abstract and realizes that some parents might not fully understand the philosophy.

"What's harder? To be suspended at home for three days or to have to answer for yourself to the person you've harmed?" he asked. "What we're trying to do is increase the level of accountability. Part of the accountability is seeing things from the other person's perspective. You begin to understand that you caused harm. The next step is thinking of ways that you can repair that harm."

Yee Hintzke is aware some people may see the new system as touchy-feely, but she says "what's wrong with touchy-feely? We're in the business of helping kids. We need to touch their lives and connect with them and their families."

Gorton plans to recruit teachers who are enthusiastic about learning how restorative justice works and eager to take part in the 50 hours of teacher training included in the grant. Those teachers, in turn, can train other teachers as the program expands. In addition to solving problems, restorative justice has been proven to cut down on repeat offenders, Yee Hintzke said.

"The amount of re-offenses goes down to almost nothing," she said. "This healing process happens. People walk away feeling like they can move on."

Another level of the restorative justice program is what Gorton calls harm circles. The students involved and even their parents are brought together to discuss an incident, understand why it happened and figure out how a similar situation might be avoided in the future.

"It's not going to be appropriate in all circumstances," he said. "You have to make sure that all parties are willing. You want to ensure success by giving students the choice to do traditional discipline or voluntarily take part in the harm circle."

Foothill tested its first-ever harm circle in November following an off-campus misunderstanding among four students working on a class project. Arguments among the four escalated, ultimately landing the students and their parents in a harm circle.

"I was skeptical because it seemed a little touchy-feely," parent Dennis Eagan said. "That was my initial reaction." But Eagan came out an advocate of the system. The reason harm circles work, he said, is the same reason some people may find them uncomfortable.

"It forces you to confront the situation," Eagan said. "Our society has become this whole social networking where we don't have to look people in the eye. You can leave comments online without having to deal with the fallout. A harm circle is probably the healthiest, most realistic thing you can do because it makes you deal with the problem."

The harm circle started with increased tension because everyone was passionate about the situation and their point of view, he said. As the discussion evolved, people were forced to see other points of view and better understand how events transpired.

"It's like being locked in an elevator with someone who's annoying at work," Eagan said. "You get to know them on a different level. There's the human aspect to it."

Eagan fully supports the restorative justice philosophy and would recommend it to others.

"It's extremely valuable," he said. "You get some real closure to the situation. It puts that human element to it that you can't escape dealing with ... What strengthens us instead of Facebook and Twitter is how we relate to each other in the real world."

Restorative justice may not be perfect, Yee Hintzke said, but it's a positive step in the right direction.

"This is a really great and very human, civilized model to use," she said. " ... It's the human element that's been missing in discipline."

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