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School discipline reform advances

Civil rights leaders will meet with the president of the Chicago Board of Education on Saturday, and high school students will meet with the executive director of a school “turnaround” group on Monday, with similar agendas – reducing student suspensions and increasing support for restorative justice.

The High Hopes Coalition, which includes civil rights and community organizations (more here), will hold a public meeting with board president Mary Richardson Lowry (Saturday, April 2, 11 a.m., Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan) to present a plan to reduce suspensions and expulsions of CPS students by 40 percent next year.

The group wants Richardson Lowry to commit to reducing suspensions and implementing restorative justice in conjunction with community groups, with monthly reports on disciplinary measures made public.

They point to a guide to implementing restorative justice in schools (pdf) issued recently by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Agency.

According to the guide, punitive approaches to school discipline including zero tolerance “do not educate students or resolve conflicts, and may even make schools less safe and cause further harm to students.”

Under such approaches, students of color tend to face disproportionately harsh punishments, according to the report – a point High Hopes has also made.

Reducing violence, dropout rate

Restorative justice defines accountability not as receiving punishment but as understanding the impact of one’s actions and taking responsibility; it “combines strict control and strong support,” and “may be more efficient at reducing violent incidents,” according to the ICJIA report.

It’s also a key strategy for reducing the dropout rate, said a High Hopes organizer.  “The number one factor for passing classes is attendance, and each suspension increases the chances of a student dropping out or failout out,” said Alex Wiesendanger of the Community Renewal Society.  “We need an approach that will keep youth in school and do something about issues that cause problems in the classroom.”

The guide identifies possible funding sources and strategies for integrating restorative justice into the existing disciplinary process.  It includes a “success story” from Kelvyn Park High School in Chicago.

Rev. Otis Moss III of Trinity UCC, Rev. Dr. Calvin S. Morris of CRS, and Rev. Robert Biekman of Southlawn United Methodist Church will be presenting the group’s proposal.  Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel and CPS interim chief Terry Mazany have also been invited to the event.

The Monday meeting between Orr students who are part of the Blocks Together Youth Council and Donald Feinstein, executive director of the Academy of Urban School Leadership, follows up on a recent community meeting with new Orr principal Tyese Sims which was covered by Catalyst.  That meeting dealt with a large number of students who’d been “dropped” for extended absences as well as a stepped-up suspension policy at Orr.

‘Undocumented and unafraid’

The Immigrant Youth Justice League will hold its second Coming Out Day, and for the first time undocumented high school students will join college students in telling their stories publicly, Thurday, March 10 at 3 p.m. at Daley Plaza, Washington and Clark.

In the year since the first “coming out” action, when eight Chicago area youth spoke out, immigration reform and the DREAM Act have failed in Congress, Arizona has passed a “papers please” law targetting immigrants, and the Obama administration has continued to step up deportations.  Throughout, undocumented youth were in the thick of things, lobbying Congress and sitting in at congressional offices in Washington and around the country.

The biggest impact of their public advocacy may have been on the undocumented community itself, which saw young people who were “willing to take action in the face of fear,” said Tania Unzueta of IYJL.  She was arrested last July in civil disobedience in Washington.

She tells of speaking in classrooms about coming out,.”There are always a couple students who come up afterwards and say ‘thank you, I’m undocumented and I’ve never had a conversation with anyone about it – could we sit and talk?'”

For others, “we hope we’ve highlighted the contractions of immigration policy – that there are a lot of young people, students with good grades, you listen to our stories and we’re like everyone else, we’re looking to make a contribution.

“At the same time the government considers us criminals, some people don’t want us to be here, and we don’t have access to the same resources other people do.”

Regardless of the action or inaction of politicians, undocumented youth are going to claim the right to tell their stories – in the hopes of putting a human face on the immigration crisis, Unzueta said.

In the coming week undocumented youth will be publicly declaring their status in New York, Texas, California, Georgia, and other states, according to IYJL.

Mayoral candidates on CPS suspension rates

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.”

Youth to candidates: listen up!

Four hundred students from dozens of Chicago public high schools will meet Saturday at the Listen Up! Youth Convention to develop a youth issue platform to present to mayoral candidates at a forum next month.

It takes place Saturday, December 11 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at DePaul University’s Student Center, 2250 N. Sheffield.

The students come from Mikva Challenge programs in which they’ve planned civic action projects and volunteered in electoral campaigns and voter registration drives

They will deliberate and generate a list of top recommendations for the city’s next mayor to address, choosing among issues raised at the group’s Project Soapbox public speaking competition last month, said Brian Brady of Mikva Challenge.

A mayoral forum is planned for January 15.

This week Mikva Challenge launched, a forum for video messages to the city’s next mayor.

Dropout crisis or ‘pushout crisis’?

With Chicago described as one of the nation’s “dropout epicenters” by Education Week, young people here are saying the dropout problem may be more of a “pushout” problem.

Two events Saturday will feature youth activists as part of a national week of activities to bring attention to the “school pushout crisis” and advocate for “the human right of every young person to a quality education.”

On Saturday morning, young people from Blocks Together (Humboldt Park), the Young Women’s Action Team (Rogers Park), MAGIC (Woodlawn), Gender Just, the Chicago Freedom School, and the Korean Resource and Cultural Center will participate in a panel discussion of the “school to prison pipeline” sponsored by the Project Nia and the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice at Roosevelt University, 430 S. Michigan, (Saturday, October 16, 9:30 a.m. to noon).

Starting at 1 p.m. the Southwest Youth Collaborative hosts a Day of Expression with youth workshops on education rights, the pushout crisis and the school-to-prison pipeline, with an open mike following at 6 to 9 p.m. at 2749 W. 63rd.

Earlier this week Blocks Together held a “mock trial” of CPS over failed disciplinary policies and school pushouts.

School pushouts in Chicago can be the direct result of policies like zero tolerance discipline or “shifting enrollment policies with the privatization of schools,” and can also be the indirect result of lack of resources, including teacher layoffs and larger class sizes, said Blocks Together youth organizer Ana Mercado.

“They only have two social workers at Orr High School, and that’s not meeting children’s needs,” she said.  “When you call it a dropout problem, you blame the students for the system’s failings.”

The events are being coordinated with the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a national coalition including the ACLU, Children’s Defense Fund, NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, along with local organizations, aimed at “refram[ing] the debate around school discipline from one that favors the punishment and exclusion of children and youth who have been failed by unsafe and underperforming schools to one based on human rights — respecting every child’s right to an education.”

According to DISC, expulsions in Illinois schools increased by 44 percent from 2000 to 2006, with black students far more likely to be expelled than others.

Chicago students and activists joined DISC in Washington D.C. at the end of September to lobby Congress to include funding for restorative justice programs and require collection of school climate and disciplinary data in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

DISC has also urged states to use federal stimulus grants to schools for alternative discipline programs.

In Chicago, groups like DISC member Alternatives and others have instituted alternative disciplinary programs in individual schools and have pressed for including restorative justice in the CPS discipline code.

Blocks Together is currently piloting training based on restorative justice for security guards at Banner School; security guards are responding enthusiastically, Mercado said.

Sit-in for youth jobs

Youth activists from across the city are planning a 24-hour sit-in at the Thompson Center tomorrow to demand that Governor Quinn sign a bill funding summer jobs.

The LIFE Campaign (it stands for Leaders Investing For Equality), led by young people from community groups in Albany Park, Little Village, Woodlawn and other neighborhoods, announced the sit-in will start at 1 p.m. on Thursday, July 29.

LIFE is calling on Quinn to sign HB 3631, which provides funding for 5000 summer jobs for young people.

Federal and state programs are providing jobs for older youth, but support for community organizations and faith institutions to hire 14- and 15-year-olds is not available this year due to Quinn’s inaction, said Shannon Bennett of the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization.

Summer jobs provide structured activities, teach critical life skills, and prepare kids to enter the work force while providing a small stipend, Bennett said.

The youth unemployment rate is at historically unprecedented levels, as noted here earlier this year.  In the black community the official unemployment rate for youth is over 50 percent, not counting millions who have stopped looking for work.

DREAM Act students to speak

Tania Unzeuta and other Chicago-area undocumented youth who were arrested last week in civil disobedience at the U.S. Capitol building, demanding action on the DREAM Act, will speak about the action, their experiences, and what’s next for the immigrant rights movement, at a press conference at 10:30 a.m., Tuesday, July 27, at Plaza Tenochtitlan (18th, Loomis, and Blue Island.)

The protest was the second time undocumented youth have risked deportation to pressure legislators – focusing on DREAM Act supporters – to move the bill.

More on Tania here; more on last week’s action – including the reaction of Senator Richard Durbin, chief sponsor of the DREAM Act – here; also see coverage at Chicanisima.

Youth win on CPS guards, grievance process

In a victory for two youth organizing drives, CPS has agreed to establish a grievance procedure for students experiencing violence, harassment or discrimination, and to pilot a program training security guards to use principles of restorative justice in their work.

Both campaigns promote the restorative justice approach – emphasizing accountability as an alternative to zero tolerance and punitive discipline – as a more effective approach to reducing violence, said Sam Finkelstein of GenderJust, an LGTB student group that protested at CPS headquarters and at CPS chief Ron Huberman’s home to demand a grievance procedure.

GenderJust announced last month that CPS had agreed to establish a process for students to file grievances on paper, by phone, or via a website.  Complaints may be investigated by the district’s Equal Opportunity Compliance Office. A student oversight committee will monitor the process.

“It’s important that students’ voices are heard when bad things are done to them,” said Nelleli Luna of GenderJust, a sophomore at Little Village Lawndale High.

Last week, Blocks Together Youth Council announced an agreement with CPS to pilot restorative justice training for security guards in five or more high schools.  The West Humboldt Park youth group has organized for years against security guard misconduct and policies that criminalize youth.

The two groups supported each other and worked together at various points over the past year.  Southwest Youth Collaborative also worked on the security guard issue.

Both groups have their work cut out for them: GenderJust is working up a publicity drive to inform students about the grievance procedure, including a citywide Queer Student Orientation at the beginning of the school year.  BTYC is identifying schools to participate and working with restorative justice practitioners to create a curriculum.

The agreement with CPS security director Michael Shields includes a commitment to facilitate discussions with the administration at Orr High School, where many BTYC members are students, said Ana Mercado.  Though the school has peer juries based on restorative justice, they aren’t widely used, she said.  “The administration doesn’t really understand it, and doesn’t put its weight behind it,” Mercado said.

One goal for the coming year is to talk about what full implementation of a restorative justice policy would look like for CPS, Finkelstein said.  The approach is now used in scattered ways with limited support (and other groups have worked to promote it over the years; see Newstips from 2005.)

System-wide implementation would be the best way to reduce violence and promote a “culture of calm,” Finkelstein said.

“A lot of people in CPS don’t know what [restorative justice] means,” he said.  “We think students should be the ones defining it.”

For background: Newstips on GenderJust’s Safe and Affirming Education campaign; Newstips on Blocks Together Youth Council’s security guard campaign.

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