"If someone bumped into me, I started saying something," Salazar, a senior, said. "It always led to a fight."
It also always led to a suspension.
Salazar used to be just another minority kid getting kicked out of school.
"We saw a high number of black and Latino students get a disproportionate number of out of school suspensions," Marco Nunez with Padres Unidos said.
Padres Unidos has staged rallies and protests to push Denver Public Schools to change its discipline policy over the years away from "zero tolerance."
"When zero tolerance was used within schools, that was pushing students out and suspending them for minor offenses," Nunez said.
Students like Salazar would find themselves in deep academic holes with little motivation to get out.
"Getting suspended made me fall behind in class, so I would come and wouldn't know what's going on," Salazar said. "That would make me not want to come to class anymore."
In 2008, DPS adopted a new plan which included an aspect known as Restorative Justice. Ben Cairnes runs the Restorative Justice Program at North High School.
"Restorative Justice is actually not a program. It's a philosophy," Cairnes, North High School Restorative Justice coordinator, said.
The premise basically states that when students fight, instead of immediate suspensions, have them sit down and discuss the issues face-to-face. They go over a series of questions with Cairnes as the mediator. Then, they come up with contract that spells out a way towards working the differences out.
Restorative Justice is completely voluntary. If a student does not want to participate, then a suspension may be handed out under the guidelines of district discipline policy.
Cairnes says it is about teaching students to respect each other, see different perspectives, and soothe animosity before it blossoms into something bigger.
"It's hard. It's really hard. But there's no better time to work on controlling your anger than when you're actually angry," Cairnes said.
He says at North High School, it is stopping fights before they start. Cairnes says over the past several years the number of fights has gone down about 80 percent and even the few that have occurred this year have been minor.
"Ultimately, we've gone from being a school really known for lots of fighting to a school that has virtually no issue with it," Cairnes said.
Since Restorative Justice has been an option in DPS, statistics show the number of black and Hispanic students being suspended has gone down. In total, the district has had 6,000 fewer suspensions over the same timeframe in the preceding years.
And Nunez says that is happening only with the 17 schools that are practicing Restorative Justice regularly.
"We will continue to raise to the district the need for this to be implemented more uniformly," Nunez said.
Antwan Wilson is the executive director of post-secondary readiness for the Denver Public Schools. Wilson says he is not sure if Restorative Justice will ever be implemented uniformly around the district - by design.
"In terms of saying that all of them are going to do it the same way? No, because that's not what we want because the students are different," Wilson said. "Part of that policy involves changing in culture and you know, change in culture takes time."
He says schools will implement the discipline ladder uniformly meaning punishments will be doled out equally for equal crimes when warranted. He says each school must develop its own form of Restorative Justice which makes sense for its student population.
"It's really more agreeing on principles and key components of the program," Wilson said.
While it's not the complete solution, Wilson says Restorative Justice is addressing racial disparities in suspensions.
"It's a big part of it. It puts us in a position to solve the problem," Wilson said.
Wilson says it is keeping students like Salazar in school. He says it is teaching them communications skills and how to compromise. It's teaching them how to talk the talk instead of walk the walk.
Salazar now plans on attending college next year.
"I didn't think I was going to make it to my junior year and here I am in my senior year," Salazar said. "I could've been in a lot of trouble if [Restorative Justice] wasn't here."
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