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Photos by Hannah Maynard

Tasha Hunter, a substitute teacher and mother of three, stood calmly amidst the hundreds of students cheering and protesting for disciplinary reform at the Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) administration building Tuesday afternoon.

She knew all too well why the crowd was angry and frustrated.

“I had to step in as a substitute in a class,” Hunter said. “And [the teacher I was substituting for] immediately named a specific student by name. ‘That child,’ she told me, ‘do not hesitate in kick him out. Do not let him stress you out.’ And when he walked into class, I was upfront with him: ‘I am not going kick you outta class; I’m going to work with you.’ And whattya know? He wanted to stay in class. He wanted to work.”

IMG 8348Launched by a coalition of nonprofits and community organizations, the Every Student Matters (ESM) campaign seeks to address this exact problem: the unilateral ability of teachers to remove students from class without protocol, former warnings, or precedence.

“We need to have a rule in place, at least a sequence as opposed to a single-view form of discretion: ‘Oh, you’re disturbing the room, leave, don’t come back’,” said LBUSD mother Bernadette Kennard. “It’s essential that we have protocol. We have protocol for everything else—why not discipline?”

ESM organizers, who joined LBUSD high school students on the lawns of the district’s administration building shortly before the Board was to formally address its reform policy by agreeing that the unilateral approach is archaic.

Instead, the Board voted in favor of an evidence-based approach known as restorative justice—applied to every form of discipline, from direct criminal behavior to classroom behavior—which focuses on repairing harm rather than dismissing it and including both victim and offender in mending the situation.

In other words, rather than right-and-wrong between students and teachers, a mutual understanding that disagreements are bound to happen and there is more value in seeing one another’s views rather than dismissing them.

“Long Beach has a high poverty rate,” said ESM organizer Lian Cheun. “This, in turn, heightens student stress. We need to make reform a priority so that we can properly equip students and teachers with what they need to increase class time for students rather than punishing them with academic failure.”

IMG 8336According to Sheun, 9,555 suspensions were issued last year in LBUSD, affecting 5,069 students. A large majority of those suspensions—3,972, or about 42% of the total suspensions issued—are for willful defiance, or simply a zero tolerance policy for students who do comply with all directions of teachers and administrators. Los Angeles Unified banned suspensions for willful defiance earlier this year, with supporters of the ban noting that it is counterintuitive to punish teenagers for behaving like teenagers, including the ever-popular behavior of the class clown.

Echoing the sentiment of the protestors, the Board unanimously passed a resolution that will “promote positive alternatives to exclusionary school discipline” with an emphasis on the aforementioned restorative justice.

“Restorative justice allows a student to see the larger picture of [their] defiance,” said Barbara Lindholm, Principal at Reid Continuation High School. “We aren’t interested in ‘punishment.’ Rather, we want to inculcate the values of empathy, orderliness, and manners in students—lifelong lessons which they will use in future arenas.”

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