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Students promote Martin Luther King’s values

Who in Chicago schools is carrying out Martin Luther King’s teachings about the importance of finding peaceful methods to resolve conflicts?

For that matter, who’s responding to the recent guidelines from the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education on civil rights and school discipline, urging a reduction of zero-tolerance policies that target minority youth?

One group is doing both: the students carrying out restorative justice programs in Chicago schools, with little support from the central administration.

Uplift Community High School student volunteers in the school’s Peace Ambassadors program will be honored for carrying on Dr. King’s legacy in a recognition ceremony on Friday, January 17, at 9:30 a.m. The school is located at 900 W. Wilson.

Uplift’s Peace Ambassadors use peer conferencing to resolve disputes that have resulted in minor misbehavior.  Students reflect on the impact of their actions and create an agreement for repairing the harm and addressing underlying issues to prevent its recurrence.

Students have gained crucial interpersonal skills while detentions and suspensions have been reduced and the school climate improved, said Ana Mercado of Alternatives, Inc., which trains students for the program.

Recent studies have confirmed that CPS leads the nation in suspension rates, particularly for black students with disabilities.

Advocates have long called on CPS to institute restorative justice on a district-wide basis, including charter schools, some of which continue to feature punitive disciplinary policies.

More police in schools?

New federal funds for safe schools should go for more counselors, social workers and psychologists, and not more police in schools, several groups are arguing.

Students and parents from across the city will hold a press conference Monday, January 21, 2 p.m. at CPS headquarters, 125 S. Clark to make their case.

Participating are Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, POWER-PAC, and the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance.

President Obama has proposed spending $150 million on police “school resource officers,” counselors and psychologists.

“We have ten full-time school security guards and two full-time armed school police, but we don’t even have one school psychologist,” said VOYCE student leader Ahkeem Wright in a release.

A CTU study last year found CPS was staffed far below recommended levels for school nurses, social workers, counselors, and psychologists.

CPS’s approach “has led to record-public spending, stark racial disparities and the overuse of school-based arrests for misdemeanor offenses – even as homicide and gun violence in the surrounding communities skyrocket,” the groups maintain.

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School-to-jail march targets CPS suspension rates

With new research once again confirming that CPS leads the nation in school suspensions — including suspension rates for special education students – youth groups will protest the “school pushout crisis” and the “school-to-prison pipeline” tomorrow.

CPS students and parents from Blocks Together and Access Living‘s Advance Youth Leadership Power, along with other community groups, will hold a press conference at Crane High School, 2245 W. Jackson, at 12:15 p.m. (Saturday, September 29) and march to the Audy Home juvenile detention center, 1100 S. Hamilton.

Youth activists want to physically dramatize the school-to-prison pipeline by marching from a school to a detention center, said Ana Mercado of BT.

Crane also represents “a neighborhood school that was underresourced for years before it was put on the list to be phased out,” she said.  “We see school closings as one of many forms of student pushout.”  (Other “pushout” factors include suspensions and expulsions, lack of social workers and counselors, and a curriculum heavily geared toward performance on standardized tests.)

At the Audy Home, activists will discuss efforts to reform the Cook County Juvenile Justice system.

CPS leads in suspensions

Illinois had the largest gap between black and white suspension rates of any state, as well as the highest rate of suspensions for black students with disabilities, in a new report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.

CPS led urban districts by a wide margin in the percent of black male students with disabilities who were suspended at least once – a whopping 72.5 percent.

That caught the attention of activists in AYLP, a disability-rights youth leadership group, said organizer Candace Coleman.  AYLP and Blocks Together are part of the High Hopes Campaign, which is pressing CPS to implement restorative justice practices in all its schools.

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A peace rally, a fight…

What if CPS gave a Peace Rally – and a fight broke out?

In a bit of street theater, students who are organizing for school discipline reform will stage the kind of scuffle that often takes place in Chicago schools – a small misunderstanding, a few insults, and someone throws the first punch.

But they’re promising “something unexpected” at that point.  Perhaps it’s a lesson for adults on how to de-escalate conflicts and solve underlying problems?

It’s scheduled for 12:20 p.m. on Saturday, May 5 outside the office of Community Organizing and Family Issues at 1436 W. Randolph – and across the street from Union Park, where a giant peace rally is planned by CPS and community groups later in the afternoon.

After the “fight” ends, Blocks Together will hold a hearing at the COFI office, where students will testify about the need for CPS to implement long-promised restorative justice programs to improve discipline and reduce suspensions and expulsions.

The City Council’s education committee recently held a hearing on school discipline issues – but scheduled it at 10 a.m. on a school day, so no students could participate, said Ana Mercado of Blocks Together.  Aldermen and school board members have been invited to Saturday’s hearing, she said.  (The education committee voted to recommend CPS implement restorative justice.)

“Students at my school get kicked out for the simplest reasons” under zero tolerance policies that CPS supposedly ended several years ago, said Andrew, a CPS student and member of Blocks Together 2.0, in a  release.

“With restorative justice, students will be in school instead of getting kicked out,” said Misael, another BT 2.0 member.  “Restorative jusice actually helps students solve their problems.”

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A community platform to stop violence

Violence is up in Chicago, but community leaders say prevention works and deserves support.

Hundreds of residents of Rogers Park and Uptown will attend the unveiling of a comprehensive violence prevention platform by the Organization of the North East on Monday, April 30 at 6:30 p.m. at Sullivan High School, 6631 N. Bosworth.

“We cannot end violence and crime with policing and law enforcement,” according to the platform. “We must address the root causes of violence by employing multiple strategies that build community, support positive youth development, prevent the negative influence of poverty and racism, and provide development-focused interventions when youth make choices that will have a negative impact on their lives.”

Speakers will include young people who have been helped by community programs and CeaseFire interrupters and clients.  “There’s a lot of good work being done that needs to be continued,” said ONE executive director Joe Damal.

Students who have been inappropriately suspended will discuss the need for school discipline reform.  ONE is part of the High Hopes Campaign, which calls for implementing restorative justice practices to reduce suspensions and expulsions in CPS.

Fenger High School – a model for CPS

Mark Brown offers an inspiring report on the success of restorative justice in “creating an atmosphere that is both disciplined and relaxed” at Fenger High School, overcoming the unfortunate notoriety the school received with the killing of Derrion Albert in 2009.

Newstips noted Spicer’s work at Fenger over a year ago, in a post reviewing restorative justice efforts in individual CPS schools – and the lack of district support for the initiatives.  (Spicer’s commitment to restorative justice goes back years with his work heading the Community Justice for Youth Institute.)

That’s the bigger picture:  coalitions like VOYCE and the High Hopes Campaign – building on the work of community groups like Blocks Together and POWER-PAC, and the in-school efforts of social service agencies like Alternatives Inc. and the Chicago Area Project — are pressing CPS to put real resources behind the restorative justice approach it officially embraced, at least on paper, in 2006.

VOYCE points out that CPS spends millions of dollars on zero-tolerance discipline approaches that aren’t effective at improving student behavior or making schools safer – and that only make dropout rates worse.  Both High Hopes and VOYCE emphasize the blatant racial disparities in the use of harsh discipline – an issue recently backed up by Arne Duncan.

Mayor Emanuel says improving high schools is going to be a priority.  It needs to be; in two decades of school reform, high schools have been the most resistant to change.

The very first step should be a serious commitment to implementing restorative justice – an approach that holds students accountable for their behavior and supports them to do better, that solves problems rather than kicking them out the door; the approach that’s had such success at Fenger – in every school across the district.

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CPS pressed on discipline reform

A City Council resolution will call on CPS to implement school discipline reforms, and students, parents, and community and faith leaders will release a report showing that a restorative justice approach could make schools safer and save the school district money.

The High Hopes Campaign will hold a press conference in the main entrance hall of City Hall at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, March 14.  Ald. Walter Burnett Jr. (27th) will discuss a resolution he will introduce Wednesday’s council meeting, and students and parents who are implementing restorative justice in Chicago schools will describe their experiences.

CPS added restorative justice to its student code of conduct in 2006 but has never implemented the approach system-wide. The approach uses peer juries and peace circles to improve school safety and culture by holding students accountable for their actions and supporting them to get on track.

The report presents findings that restorative justice is more effective at improving student behavior and achievement than punitive discipline methods, including suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.  It reviews best practices and makes recommendation on what’s needed in terms of funding and staffing, as well as monitoring and evaluation. [Read the report.]

CPS could save money now spent on having police officers and large numbers of security guards in schools – and on expulsions and arrests — by focusing on approaches that improve behavior, said Ana Mercado of Blocks Together.

The High Hopes Campaign (it stands for Healing Over the Punishment of Expulsions and Suspensions) includes Access Living, Community Renewal Society, Enlace Chicago, Organization of the North East, Blocks Together, Trinity UCC, Southwest Youth Collaborative, and POWER-PAC.

Last week the U.S. Department of Education released findings confirming that African-American students in CPS face harsher discipline than other students.  It’s time “to figure out what’s working and what’s not,” said Secretary Arne Duncan at the time.

Students call on Emanuel to back discipline reform

Student activists and elected officials will launch a petition drive Monday calling on Mayor Emanuel to reverse his support for extreme disciplinary policies that they say are ineffective and force kids out of school and onto the streets.

Students from Voices of Youth in Chicago Education will be joined by County Commissioner Jesus Garcia, State Senator Willie Delgado, and State Representative Kim Dubuclet for a press conference at the Cook County Junevile Center, 2245 W. Ogden, at 10 a.m. on Monday, March 5.

Students will share research and personal experiences showing that punitive disciplinary approaches – ranging from fines for misconduct at Noble Charter Schools to suspensions and expulsions at traditional schools – target black and Latino students disproportionately and increase their risk of failure.

New research by students in VOYCE, reviewing tens of thousands of disiplinary actions at CPS over the past year, shows the vast majority were for offenses that did not pose serioius and immediate safety threats, according to the group.

While Emanuel pushes for a longer school day, CPS policies cause hundreds of thousands of lost school days for kids most at risk, they point out.

VOYCE is a citywide multiracial youth organization focused on reducing dropouts. After a 2008 report on “Student-Led Solutions to the Dropout Crisis,” the goup piloted a program in which 300 members served as peer mentors to 700 freshmen in eight high schools. They found extended suspensions for minor misbehavior to be a major obstacle to getting kids on track (see Newstips from July 2011).

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