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CPS acts on LGBT concerns

A grassroots organizing campaign led by LGBT youth has won agreement from CPS chief Ron Huberman on a new advisory council to promote the school district’s policies against discrimination and harassment.

The agreement comes weeks after another youth-led campaign won an expanded anti-discrimination policy from the Board of Education.

Meeting with members of the citywide coalition Gender Just and other groups on August 18, Huberman offered to fund an “intervention team” or advisory council of students and community members that would develop a student justice handbook and guide development of a training curriculum for CPS staff.

The team will also be tasked with developing a grievance process for students with discrimination and harassment issues that their own schools aren’t addressing adequately, said Sam Finkelstein of Genter Just.

CPS’s anti-discrimination policy was expanded to add gender identity and expression to the list of protect categories at the school board’s July 22 meeting. That decision followed a drive by young people working with the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, during which nearly a thousand signatures were collected on petitions.

The August meeting followed a community forum with Huberman in June where Gender Just proposed eight measures as part of their “safe and affirming education” campaign. These included a district accountability organizer to assist gay-straight alliances in every school; comprehensive sex education, covering condom use and diverse sexual orientations; accountability for security guards; attention to the potential impacts of school closings on vulnerable students; and a directive to principals emphasizing the district’s anti-discrimination and anti-harassment policies.

Gender Just wanted mandatory training for all staff; Huberman agreed to develop a curriculum for new staff orientation that would also be available online, Finkelstein said. A letter to principals emphasizing district policies will go out with the new curriculum, he said.

Good policies, not always followed

CPS has good policies but they aren’t implemented everywhere, Finkelstein said. “There are a lot of disparities and they tend to match up with income levels and race,” he said.

Gay-straight alliances — GSAs — are generally found on the north side, with very few on the south or west sides, he said. Often schools won’t allow students to form GSAs, even though CPS policy requires them to do so if they allow any student clubs, Finkelstein said.

“Teachers weren’t really supportive,” said Akhia Daniels, a recent graduate of South Shore High School for Leadership. “They would see stuff going on and not address it.”

“School is supposed to be a place for education, a place to be safe, not a place to be judged on whether you like boys or girls,” she said. “They want you to do all these things and at the same time they’re not offering you a safe environment.”

Another campaign member is Chicago Youth Initiating Change, a citywide social justice group. CYIC emphasizes problems with Renaissance 2010, including problems caused for vulnerable students by closings and relocations.

Military academies, security guards

Renaissance 2010 schools present other problems, Finkelstein said: with “more flexibility and less accountability,” charter and contract schools associated with Renaissance 2010 are more likely to disregard or feel unbound by CPS policy. Discrimination, harassment and violence are particularly issues in the military academies which are proliferating, he said.

Blocks Together, a community organization which organizes youth in West Humboldt Park, joined the campaign because BT’s longtime effort to improve training for security guards (see below) meshed with its goals, said Cecile Carroll. At last month’s meeting, Huberman said CPS is finally overhauling training to raise standards and increase professionalism among guards.

Blocks Together’s youth council wants to be at the table — in part to ensure that principles of restorative justice are part of the training — Carroll said. “It’s a good opportunity to help influence the culture of security guards all across the system, rather than school by school, the way we have been working,” she said.

While school districts in cities across the country are beginning to address the concerns of LGBT youth, Chicago’s efforts are noteworthy because of the direct involvement of youth in designing responses, Finkelstein said. “Chicago has a robust youth organizing movement right now,” he said.

School-to-prison pipeline

Chicago scholars and activists will discuss educational policy and the school-to-prison pipeline in a roundtable discussion at Jane Addams Hull House Museum, 800 S. Halsted, Wednesday, March 12 at 6 p.m.

Speakers include:

–Erica R. Meiners of Northeastern Illinois University and St. Leonard’s Adult High School, author of “Right to be Hostile,” which argues that disciplinary regulations and pedagogy advance and validate an expectation of incarceration for urban youth

–Kevin K. Kumashiro of UIC (he coordinates Asian American Studies and directs the Center for Anti-Oppressive Education there), whose new book “The Seduction of Common Sense” argues that attacks on public education require a response framed by a commitment to human rights and equality

— Mia Henry of the Chicago Freedom School, inspired by the freedom schools established during Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1963 to address educational inequality, with a number of programs including year-long Freedom Fellowships offering training and mentoring in activism to youth 14 to 16

— Janeida Rivera of Batey Urbano in Humboldt Park, a Puerto Rican-Latino youth club and internet cafe connecting youth with local universities and offering creative arts opportunities and a showcase for hip hop, poetry, and music.  (Here’s video of Rivera presenting a poem at a Batey Urbano performance.)

Parents Mark National Recess Week

Parents and students from across Chicago are marking National Recess Week with a rally calling for reinstating recess in all CPS elementary schools.

Sponsored by the parent group POWER-PAC, the rally will take place Friday, September 22 at 11:30 a.m. at Von Humboldt Elementary School, 2620 W. Hirsch.

POWER-PAC has won reinstatement of recess in some schools where it has organized, and at Von Humboldt over 300 parents, teachers and students have signed petitions supporting recess, said organizer Kellie Magnuson. Currently 82 percent of Chicago elementary schools have no recess periods for their students, she said.

“Our kids need recess to be better students,” said POWER-PAC co-chair Nelly Torres, mother of three students at Von Humboldt. “They need time to exercise, socialize and blow off some steam, so when they return to class they are focused and ready to learn.”

September 18-21 was named National Recess Week as part of Cartoon Network’s Rescuing Recess program to restore playtime to the school day. The program has been endorsed by a dozen leading child advocacy groups including the National PTA, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Education Association.

Parents, Students Act on School Safety

While the City Council considers a proposal to fine families of children who get into fights at school, parents in Austin are improving classroom behavior and performance with an educational discipline program based on “restorative justice,” and students are discussing initiatives to reduce tensions at Clemente High School.

Earlier this year members of the citywide parent group POWER-PAC established the Austin Peace Center at Brunson Elementary School, with support from the State’s Attorney’s Project Reclaim.

POWER-PAC has called for education-oriented discipline programs as an alternative to excessive use of suspensions, which they say don’t improve behavior or address underlying issues.

At Brunson students facing suspension or detention were referred to the peace center, and one group of boys and one of girls each met for twice-weekly after-school sessions for several months. They learned conflict resolution strategies and got homework help and one-on-one time with adult mentors. A conflict resolution approach called “peace circles” was used to handle classroom infractions, bringing together everyone involved in a supportive conversation which holds offenders accountable.

Volunteer parents and community residents serve as Peacemakers, staffing the peace center during school days. “Kids can ask to talk to a Peacemaker if they’re getting upset,” said Lynn Morton of POWER-PAC. “They can sit and talk and calm down, and then go and have a great day.”

Discipline problems have gone down and grades have gone up for participating students, Morton said.

Several Austin school are interested in joining the program, she said, and next year they will expand to Howe Elementary, 720 N. Lorel.

Students participating in the Austin Peace Center will be recognized in an awards ceremony on Thursday, June 8, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., at Brunson, 932 N. Central.

Backed by Community Organizing and Family Issues, POWER-PAC is also pressing to reinstate recess in CPS elementary schools, in order to improve behavior and learning.

At Clemente High School, students are discussing starting a welcoming committee for students transferred from Austin High as it is phased out, said Freddie Calixto, executive director of BUILD Inc., which has worked with Clemente students on gang and violence issues for several years.

Fights went up dramatically at Clemente after Austin students were transferred there this year.

Of the welcoming committee Calixto said, “They could have done it this year,” but information about the student transfer “didn’t funnel down to the community level. People didn’t know what was going on, so they didn’t know how to respond.”

Clemente students are also planning to reach out to parents from the Austin area, and they have called for more security at the school and better training for security personnel, Calixto said.

They’ve also won administration support for scattered dismissal times, reviving a proposal that had been rejected in the past, he said.

CPS Discipline Code Revised — Slightly

This summer CPS administrators extended the annual review of the Uniform Discipline Code in order to consider recommendations from a community task force on school discipline.

Few of the group’s recommendations were adopted, but members say they’ll continue to press for alternatives to out-of-school suspensions and less reliance on expulsions and arrests. They plan to pilot alternative discipline programs in elementary schools. And with CPS support, the citywide parent group POWER-PAC is preparing parents’ guides to the UDC in English and Spanish.

Azim Ramelize, assistant commissioner of children and youth services for the city and convener of the Community School Justice Task Force, expressed strong disappointment with the UDC revision. Other task force members are encouraged by the prospect of continuing discussions with CPS staff on the subject.

The major change recommended by the task force and adopted by the Board of Education last month was nominal: the group recommended dropping the word “Uniform” from the code’s title, since it gives some parents the impression that the document is a dress code; the Board added the words “Student Code of Conduct” as a subtitle.

More significantly, the task force recommended replacing out-of-school suspensions with in-school programs based on principles of “restorative justice,” in which offenders redress the harm done to their victims and receive support to get back on track.

They also recommended removing language suggesting police notification and arrest for various types of misconduct. The board changed language allowing police notification to say “police notification not required,” according to Kellie Magnuson of POWER-PAC.

A March 2005 report depicted the CPS code as exceptional for specifying misconduct that is subject to arrest. The Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C. racial justice think tank, reported that over 8000 students were arrested in CPS schools in 2003 — almost 10 percent of them aged 12 and under, and some as young as 7 — and that a majority of cases “did not involve serious crimes.”

The report included the case of students arrested for having a snowball fight.

Most cases of in-school arrests are dropped before trial, and only a small number result in convictions, according to Advancement Project figures. A significant number go to court diversion programs which are based on restorative justice.

“We get those cases,” said Cheryl Graves of the Community Justice for Youth Initiative, which runs Community Panels for Youth in seven Chicago communities. Extensive educational and criminal justice resources could be saved — and many fewer youth pushed out of the school system — if CPS would adopt in-school conflict resolution practices already favored by police and prosecutors, she said. And restorative justice programs would help “create a positive school environment” and “give parents a constructive role” in discipline issues, she added.

“It’s so clear that there are viable alternatives,” said Graves. “It’s not acceptable that these kids are being pushed out of school.”

The Advancement Project report said CPS is “infamous” for harsh disciplinary practices that “exclude thousands of students from the classroom each year” and constitute “a schoolhouse-to-jailhouse track that is ravaging this generation.” Suspensions in CPS have tripled in the last ten years, and expulsions have soared from 95 in 1995 to an estimated 3,000 in 2003-2004, according to the report.

Graves said CJYI is working with POWER-PAC groups in Austin and Englewood to train parents in restorative justice conferencing, and POWER-PAC is seeking CPS support to pilot a range of alternative discipline programs in seven elementary schools.

Task force members will give a presentation on restorative justice at the annual citywide conference of school discipline staff in October, and CPS will offer expanded trainings on the Uniform Discipline Code for parents, Magnuson said.

POWER-PAC is also seeking a statement from CPS encouraging elementary schools to reestablish recess and noting the benefits for education and classroom discipline.

Parents Win Alternative Discipline Pilot

5-31-05 — CPS president Michael Scott agreed to pilot alternative discipline programs in elementary schools during a meeting with a citywide parents group on May 20.

But asked about restoring recess in elementary schools, Scott reiterated the CPS position that recess should be a reward for achievement and abruptly left the meeting.

Earlier this year Scott asked POWER-PAC to hold hearings, collect testimony and compile recommendations, after the group complained about excessive reliance on suspensions in elementary schools.

The group reported that parents consider suspensions to be counterproductive, saying they “contributed directly to their children’s alienation from school and ultimately to school failure,” according to a report issued by POWER-PAC May 20. While the number of suspensions is growing dramatically for children in kindergarten and early grades, young children do not understand the punishment, according to the report.

A large proportion of parents felt their children’s suspensions were inappropriate, and the report notes the “lack of due process in the decision to suspend.” In addition, two-thirds of parents whose children had been suspended said they were not officially notified of the action.

The group recommended endling out-of-school suspensions except as a last resort; reinstating recess in elementary schools and ending “silent lunches”; pilot testing discipline prevention programs such as conflict resolution and “restorative justice” programs; and including parents and youth in school and system-wide discipline oversight committees.

They said schools that have restored recess have noted improved student behavior in the classroom.

POWER-PAC requested meetings with CPS staff who are reportedly revising the Uniform Discipline Code. The group wants less reliance on suspensions and punitive discipline — and less reliance on criminal arrests for in-school misconduct, policies which they say push children out of school.

“Instead of harsh actions that are punishing our kids and making them feel bad about themselves, we need programs that teach kids why their actions are wrong and encourage them not to repeat it,” said POWER-PAC leader Lynn Morton

[UPDATE – A coalition of parents and community groups in North Lawndale is calling for an examination of CPS policy giving principals authority to call police at their discretion. At a  (10 a.m.) at Mason Elementary School, 1830 S. Keeler, the North Lawndale Accountability Commission and others are denouncing “the criminalization of black students by involving police in routine discipline matters.”

According to Derrick Harris of NLAC, over 250 students have been arrested by police for in-school misconduct at Mason. Harris said he witnessed two fifth-grade girls being arrested for fighting at Mason on Friday, June 3; another community activist was also arrested in that incident when he sought to intervene with police.

“It’s just unfair,” said Harris. “I wish you could see these children’s faces. They’re devastated.”

A report on arrests of students in Chicago and other cities, released this spring by the Advancement Project in Washington, D.C., said the CPS is unusual among school districts because its discipline code specifies behaviors that may result in arrest. In-school arrests have increased dramatically in Chicago, with 10 percent of over 8,000 arrests in 2003 involving children 12 and under, according to “Education Under Lockdown” (www.accountabilityproject.org) – and Black children are treated morre harshly than others, according to the report.

For more: Derrick Harris, North Lawndale Accountability Commission, 312-437-1414]

Parents Report School Discipline “Horror Stories”

A citywide group of parents collecting “horror stories” of inappropriate suspensions and harsh discipline of children as young as kindergarten age — and developing recommendations to “redirect the school-to-prison pipeline — will present their findings to CPS president Michael Scott in a public meeting on Friday.

The group took up the issue, focusing on elementary school discipline, because “everywhere we talked to parents, the major concern was discipline,” said POWER-PAC member Nelly Torres, a West Town parent. “Kids were getting suspended for any little reason — brushing against a teacher in the hallway, or talking at lunch. It seemed obvious to parents that it just wasn’t right.”

Working with Southwest Women Working Together, West Town Leadership United, and the Austin Parent Network, the group held three community hearings on “Elementary Justice” this spring. “We heard about too many cases of punishment not fitting the crime, and of children being suspended without their parents being informed,” said Pamela Dominguez of SWWT.

They learned that 90 percent of CPS elementary schools have eliminated recess, and many have instituted “silent lunches,” said Kellie Magnuson of COFI. But their request to CPS for school-by-school data on suspensions and expulsions was never answered, she said.

They met with teachers union and police officials. “The police were saying that they’re tired of being called for little things that the school should handle,” said Torres.

“We’re seeing younger and younger kids who are facing expulsion and juvenile court cases” for “behavior that would more appropriately be addressed in-school,” said Lauren Adams of Northwestern’s Children and Family Justice Center. “Otherwise you’re pushing children out of school.”

POWER-PAC is recommending discipline policies that emphasize education, with out-of-school suspensions only as a last resort, and education provided during in-school suspensions and detentions. They want recess reinstated in all schools, and silent lunches banned. They want the Uniform Discipline Code with parent input and alternative discipline programs adapted and piloted in elementary schools. They are calling for parent orientations on discipline policies as well as discipline committees in schools and citywide with parent participation. And they want schools to report annually on suspensions and expulsions.

POWER-PAC members will meet with Scott on Friday, May 20 at 10 a.m. (coffee at 9:30) at UNITE union hall, 333 S. Ashland

Students Want Input on Security Issues

With a spate of recent school shootings spurring CPS chief Arne Duncan to institute “audits” of school security, students are pressing for their concerns to be heard.

Chicago Youth United members met with Duncan last September to raise security issues. They asked that security guards be at least 21 years old and meet other standards, and that they be required to undergo sensitivity training designed with youth input.

A CPS staffer later told CYU that the hiring standards would be forwarded to principals as a recommendation; current training materials which were promised to CYU members were never delivered, organizers said. (See Newtips Aug. 15, 2002)



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