Every night gunshots lullaby me to sleep
In ruins of abandoned buildings
the broken glass is
where we bottle up all our broken dreams. . . .
Hold the dream with me, as it breaks loose from Jameale Pickett's poem. Something beyond the insane dance of crime and punishment is happening, at least this year, this moment, in Chicago's high schools. Young people are getting a chance to excel and become themselves, as more and more schools find and embrace common sense, also known as restorative justice.
The funding is fragile, precarious, but some schools in struggling communities are figuring out how to break the school-to-prison pipeline, even though the system as a whole remains wrapped up in suspensions, expulsions, zero tolerance and racism.
"The Obama administration on Wednesday urged school officials to abandon unnecessarily harsh suspension and expulsion practices that appear to target black students," the Chicago Sun-Times reported recently.
"In Chicago, although black students in 2009 made up 45 percent of (the Chicago Public Schools') enrollment, 76 percent of all CPS students who received out-of-school suspensions were black, according to Department of Education data. When it came to expulsions, black students made up 80 percent of those who were expelled."
And, as of data from a few years ago, one in four African-American students gets suspended at least once during the school year in Illinois - the highest rate in the nation. Suspensions become blemishes on one's record that are almost impossible to erase. But worst of all, the conflict at the root of every suspension, in the old system of zero tolerance, goes unaddressed - indeed, unacknowledged, either by the school system or the media. Yet every unaddressed conflict festers and grows.
Motivations to success are few and futile
so when I walk
I always keep my head down.
I can't go to school because . . .
education is decapitated.
But something is different where Jameale does go to school. He's a sophomore at Uplift Community High School, on the North Side of Chicago, in the neighborhood known as Uptown. He read his poem as part of a ceremony last week that I was (to my great honor) invited to attend, in which some 25 students accepted their certificates as peace ambassadors.
All of them had received intensive training in what is known as peer conferencing, which is a central facet of the growing restorative justice movement. Peer conferencing is a healing-based approach to conflict resolution, in which students trained in the process sit in a circle - a "peace circle" - with those involved in a dispute of some sort and guide a discussion, often intense, that ends in an agreement about how to repair the harm that was done.
It's the precise opposite of the escalating craziness of a zero-tolerance, police-dependent approach to trouble at school. It's about restoring the whole, not punishing bad kids over and over and over, until they leave school and wind up in jail. Such an approach results in the broken glass and shattered dreams - the "decapitated education" - that so many young people in poor, struggling neighborhoods experience. It's wrecking American society.
But the devastation begins so simply. At the awards ceremony, Ana Mercado of Alternatives, Inc., the local social service agency that trained the Uplift peace ambassadors, told of a typical peer conferencing circle that had recently been held. A teacher was having a problem with a student who kept talking in class - oh, the simplest sort of problem! But it's the kind of thing that can escalate until the student is expelled. In this case, however, a calm discussion in a peace-circle setting revealed that the teacher had "said something that made the student feel disrespected. The teacher and student met and talked it through. They now have a great relationship."
End of story. It's so simple, so lacking in "newsworthiness." Yet this is how peace building works.
And: "Students have so much more influence with one another than adults have," Hope Lassen, also of Alternatives, pointed out. Last fall, at the start of the school year, she went around to every English class at Uplift and recruited students to become peer conferencing leaders and peace ambassadors. Some of them had been suggested by teachers, but: "You need the students who have gotten into trouble a lot, as well as the ones who are the primo joiners that teachers love," she said.
This is the kind of thinking that starts making this process real. It transcends the simplistic, punitive paradigm and values every student at the school.
So far this year, the students have held 16 conferences, 15 of which have ended in agreements that were successfully completed; 129 days of suspension were prevented. As one teacher said at the awards ceremony: "This is the best year I've seen at Uplift. It's the first year we haven't had any brawls," which he attributed to the peer-conferencing program. "We truly do see the fruits of your labor."
Jameale, who talked to me after the ceremony, pointed out that "restorative justice starts at the school level, but most students live in the community. We're also impacting the community in a positive way."
During his training to be one of the school's peace ambassadors, participants were asked at one point "to tell one of the deepest moments in our life," he said. He told people: "Before I was born, my father died. I'd never told anyone that." But in the telling, he understood its emotional impact: "I needed to protect everyone around me."
And in the revelation: "It made me feel I was connected to you, and you to me."
This is how his poem ends:
A people RISE
from the chalk outlines . . .
A people who reclaim what is rightfully theirs
Their City &
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercwgmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.