Two mayoral candidates and several state legislators will endorse the High Hopes Campaign’s goal of reducing suspensions in CPS at a community forum tomorrow.
All the mayoral candidates have been invited to the forum, Saturday, January 29, 10:30 a.m. at Southlawn United Methodist Church, 8605 S. Cregier.
City Clerk Miguel del Valle has confirmed his attendance – he’s previously endorsed the campaign and spoken repeatedly in favor of its goals – and Carol Moseley Braun is sending a representative to announce her support, organizers said.
State legislators from the South Side, including members of legislative committees on education, will also announce their support, they said.
With 43,000 suspensions and 600 expulsions last year, CPS leads the nation’s school systems in both measures, and African American students are twice as likely to be suspended and even more likely to be expelled, according to a Catalyst  report which inspired the campaign (see previous post  for more).
Research shows that suspensions increase the risk of failure, dropouts, and incarceration.
High Hopes aims at “collapsing the walls of this cradle-to-prison pipeline” and countering “disproportionate levels of incarceration and unemployment in the African-American community,” said Rev. Paul Ford of Avalon Park UCC, in a release. The church is part of Community Renewal Society’s Civic Action Network , which is spearheading the coalition.
The campaign wants CPS to implement the restorative justice approach which it adopted in 2007, replacing a punitive “zero tolerance” policy. Restorative justice uses peer juries and peace circles to hold offenders accountable and build community. But CPS has yet to implement the approach system-wide.
Organizers say that where used, restorative justice has reduced suspensions and conflict.
At Fenger High School, where longtime restorative justice advocate Robert Spicer joined the staff last year following the beating death of Derrion Albert, peace circles have prevented 268 days of suspension over a recent six-week period, Spicer reports in a blog post . The circles have also helped resolve conflicts that could have ended up in physical fights, he said.
“This is what should be on the front page of our newspapers,” he comments.
In 2009, peer juries averted 2,000 days of suspension, according to Andrew Tonachel of Alternatives .
But some administrators have been reluctant to adopt the new approach. At Orr High School, peer juries handled numerous cases that would have otherwise resulted in suspensions, but the principal has been slow to refer cases, said Ana Mercado of Blocks Together , a coalition member which works with Humboldt Park youth and parents.
The Chicago Area Project’s restorative justice program  was hugely successful at Dyett High School, says Edith Crigler – she tells of post-suspension reentry circles with a large group of girls who “realized they all faced the same challenges” and decided to become the Dyett Peacemakers – and in one year, in-school arrests went from 60 to 6. But when a new principal came in, the program “fell off the cliff.”
At other schools where CPS sent CAP, principals were too busy to meet with them, and nothing got off the ground, she said.
“You need adult buy-in in the school for it to have a chance,” said Tonachel. Alternatives trained peer juries in 20 CPS high schools this fall – down from about 40 over the past several years, after a federal funding stream was cancelled.
In Chicago, restorative justice is “very much school-driven as opposed to the central office mandating it and providing resources,” he said. “There’s not a system-wide interest.”
In neighborhoods with “a lot of violence, kids getting shot and dying,” restorative justice “gives young people a way to have their voices heard in a safe environment, to process some of the trauma going on in their lives. These kids are coming to school with so much trauma and it makes it so hard to learn. CPS could help them find a way to deal with all this.”