The expulsion of 11 Corona del Mar High students this week puts a blemish on Newport-Mesa Unified School District's recent record of declining suspensions and expulsions.
Up until Wednesday's school board decision, Newport-Mesa schools mirrored state data released this week that shows dramatic reductions in the number of students expelled and suspended in California, in accordance with the expansion of restorative justice as a form of discipline.
Restorative justice, which was implemented fully into Newport-Mesa schools in the fall, focuses on helping students to develop empathy, understand the reasons for their actions and take responsibility for wrongdoing, according to district officials.
"Restorative justice practices for addressing student behavior [are] used at the principals' discretion in coordination with the involved staff and teachers and in accordance with the board's discipline policy," said district spokeswoman Laura Boss.
In 2011-12, the district recorded 18 expulsions. The next year, no students were expelled from the district, but seven received stipulated expulsions, according to data provided by the California Department of Education. A stipulated expulsion allows students to stay in the district, but forces them to change schools and potentially face other disciplinary measures.
Restorative justice fits into the 2013 state law that requires schools to find other means of discipline before suspending students.
District officials have continuously emphasized that restorative justice was not used in the cheating scandal that rocked the Corona del Mar community for more than a month.
"While the district is a proponent of restorative justice, and uses the practice in many cases, restorative justice is not being utilized in the current CdM process," according to a previous news release from the district.
However, the fact that the 11 CdM students were allowed to stay in the district has some parents in the community questioning whether Newport-Mesa's disciplinary procedures are too lax.
"We're not going to be highly punitive and kick them out of the district. We're just going to move them down the road to another school," said David O'Shea, a Newport Harbor High School parent. "It's a horrible message to send."
Jacquelyn Dillman, the parent of a former Harbor student, attributes the issue at CdM to a larger parenting problem. She said discipline should start early in the home, which would limit the need for scolding at school.
"In my experience, parents hover and helicopter over children in terms of grades, but not in terms of ethics," she said.
Restorative justice takes on many forms, but often it involves conferences with administrators or teachers to identify the issues that may be causing a student's bad behavior. After that, the student would be forced to complete some type of activity to prove that he or she understands the seriousness of the situation.
Schools often adopt restorative justice in an effort to more effectively discipline students and discourage repeat offenses, said Lisa Rea, an expert in the field and president of Restorative Justice International.
"It's very important that we apply sanctions that change behavior and acknowledge when a student does something wrong," she said. "It's never sweeping it under the rug. It's about having them take responsibility."