Last April, I received an email from my research professor, Alfred Defreece encouraging his students to attend the two-day training on Restorative Justice. It was the first time I’ve ever heard the term, but I felt compelled to attend and e-mail Nancy Michaels, the Programming Coordinator for the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice at Roosevelt University. I wanted to learn more on Restorative Justice before the training session.
What is Zero Tolerance?
Nancy Michaels immediately sent me information on the dire “zero tolerance” rule in CPS. Although in 2006, the term “Zero Tolerance” was removed from CPS, its spirit and its qualities remain present in many public schools (High Hopes Campaign). Therefore, what is “Zero Tolerance”? According to the organization, Children Defense in an article called, Cradle to Prison Pipeline® Campaign explains the rule. The article states, “Nationally, 1 in 3 Black and 1 in 6 Latino boys born in 2001 are at risk of imprisonment during their lifetime. While boys are five times as likely to be incarcerated as girls, there also is a significant number of girls in the juvenile justice system (Children Defense).” This is the sad reality for many teenagers and children across the country.
Children are in detention or even face expulsion over the simplest incidents. For instance, Brittany’s story proves how “Zero Tolerance” can hurt a student academically, but also emotionally. Brittany’s story begins during her sophomore year at a CPS High school; Brittany received an out-of- suspension for not wearing her school uniform. Although she was an average student and involved in many school activities, her suspension proceeded. While she was not in school, she met drug dealers that did not judge her for her suspension. After her long suspension was over, she struggled to catch up with her studies. Later on, Brittany learned about restorative justice program that was an effective alternative for the harsh discipline methods like suspensions. Brittany joined The Blocks Together Youth Council to pressure her school administration to change their discipline methods (High Hopes Campaign).
Brittany’s story is an example that teenagers can create a difference, but she’s also a role model and among many organizations challenging CPS to end the disastrous practice. After I read Brittany’s story, I knew I had to attend the training.
The Restorative Justice Training: Peace Circles
The Restorative Justice Training started with a group of people sitting in a circle called a Peace Circle. Each person had to say their name while catching a stuff animal. It was a different setting and a unique atmosphere because shortly among activities, everyone shared a personal story. Yet, this is not a class setting where a student raises their hand to answer a question. It was a natural flow which held an emotional and spiritual cleansing because everyone sitting in the circle shared their pains, their worries, and their triumphs too. Many stories were inspirational and painful. Although many of us never met before the training, everyone was very supportive like a family during the training.
After the two-day training, I understood that there are other alternatives and disciplinary methods like restorative justice. If a group of adults were able to communicate their personal stories and afterwards most of the people whom attended the training felt renewed, I can imagine how effective this practice would be in all school settings.
Interview with Nancy Michaels- Programming Coordinator for the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice at Roosevelt University
Almost a month later, I contacted Nancy Michaels again, but this time it was for an interview. I am very thankful with Nancy Michaels because she took time out of her busy schedule to speak with me. As promised the interview was brief, but extremely promising.
Q: When was the first time you learned about Restorative Justice and Zero Tolerance policy?
A: I’ve known and I have been aware of Zero Tolerance policy for a good number of years perhaps five or six years now. But probably three years ago, the Mansfield Institute wanted to concentrate on the Cradle to Prison Pipeline. After doing research, we developed programming here at the university (Roosevelt University) to raise consciousness of the Prison Pipeline. The Prison Pipeline puts children in certain communities in risk of a trajectory to prison instead of college or a productive adulthood. One of the areas that are prevalent in that pipeline is zero tolerance policies that criminalized kids which puts them out of school through suspension or expulsion. As a result, they are in greater risk of violence and getting involved in criminal activities. Besides the fact, they are not in school and learning, after their suspension or expulsion period, they act out because they are behind in school. It is a vicious cycle and schools have become very punitive. As a result to the Zero Tolerance policy, we were looking for solutions and the one that kept coming up was Restorative Justice and Peace Circles as an alternative to the punitive policies that are causing that are causing an increased risk of incarceration, especially for kids of color in certain CPS community schools. This is how we were led to Restorative Justice.
Q: What is the next step and goal for the Mansfield Institute?
A: We are definitely planning events next year in the realm of juvenile justice. In fact, in September we are featuring the work of Richard Ross, a photographer at Roosevelt’s Gage gallery this September through December. He has gone around the country and photographed youth in Juvenile detention facilities. His photographs speak a thousand words about how kids don’t belong in these spaces. The exhibit is titled Juvenile In-Justice and the pictures feature the youth in the detention facilities without showing their faces to protect their identities. Other events programming relating to juvenile is in the works, but definitely Richard Ross’s photographs will be at the Gage Gallery at Roosevelt University from September to December.
Our next step now is refining is defining a Restorative justice pilot program that has been in the works at an elementary school in Englewood. The project involves implementing restorative justice practices in the school to effect a restorative culture over a punitive one and ultimately to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions. We are hoping to implement this model at other schools, but we are finding difficult to find funding. A few high schools have restorative justice program, but I feel that Restorative justice principles needs to be instilled earlier on for best results. Once the child reaches high school, it will be much more effective because the child has been familiar with Restorative Justice at an early age. This is our goal.
In relation with the Cook County detention center, we are working with diversion. Also, we are working at an illiteracy program at Probation in their education advocacy department. With have plenty of projects that are coming soon.
Q: I wanted to write this article after the semester ended because many high school students are about to graduate. It is common that a large percent of high school seniors are undecided what to major. Therefore, my question is if I am a high school student and I am about to graduate even I am not living in Chicago and might be going to Roosevelt or another school that offer Social Justice, how would you encourage or advice a student to pursue Social Justice Degree or become involve Restorative Justice?
A: I think high school students, especially the upper level students or those graduating could be a great resource for other high school students or kids that are close to their age or they could relate to. They could be excellent role models, once they learn the foundation of restorative justice and peace circles; I would encourage them to get involved and hopefully we would get more opportunities for our students to get involved. If they end up at Roosevelt University and they wanted to take a transformational learning course which takes them outside of the four walls of a classroom. The student would work directly with the community on Restorative justice; I would guide them towards something like that.
Once again, Nancy Michaels, thank you very much for the interview.
I felt honored to have my first interview with Nancy Michaels, but also to write an article on Restorative Justice. The next generation depends on us to create change and if this problem continues, we are stopping powerful minds to blossom and shine in the future if nothing is improved. The Mansfield Institute at Roosevelt University among many organizations around the country continues to improve school policies to create a safe and truly an educational atmosphere at schools.
For more information on Restorative Justice, The Mansfield Institute at Roosevelt University, and more click on the links
Blocks Together http://www.btchicago.org/
Children’s Defense – Cradle to Prison Campaign http://www.childrensdefense.org/programs-campaigns/cradle-to-prison-pipeline/
High Hopes Campaign: From Policy to Standard Practice: Restorative Justice in CPS https://www.box.com/s/86i7djik1i72p47tnlnf
Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation at Roosevelt University http://www.roosevelt.edu/MISJT/AboutUs.aspx
Richard Ross Photographer: September 13 – December 12, 2012: Juvenile-in-Justice at Gage Gallery at Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL http://richardross.net/
Roosevelt University http://www.roosevelt.edu/Home.aspx