Restorative, Not Punitive, Justice: The Battle To Reduce Suspensions at CPS

David Flores, a student at Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy in the Near West Side of Chicago, was strip-searched by the police at his school when he was in 8th grade because his teacher thought he was in possession of marijuana. They didn’t find a speck on him.

“Why don’t you guys let us voice our opinions, and why am I always being blamed?” Flores said, complaining that schools take an overly punitive approach in handling matters like this. “Is it because I’m a student of color and I’m from a rough neighborhood?”

To be fair, Flores did have a knack for trouble since the beginning of his school years. When he was in 5th grade, he got into a fight with another student considered a bully and was suspended for a week. Initially, the principal had threatened to expel him, but his father intervened and reduced the punishment. While Flores admits that his history with the “street life” had molded him into a hostile person, he believes that the school had deepened his cycle of trouble by refusing to listen.

“I was bullied a lot when I first came to my school,” Flores, now 18, said, “And my dad taught me to stick up for yourself when someone hits you. I was just defending myself, but the school didn’t even listen to what I had to say. They just wanted to expel me.”

Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett
Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett

Despite extensive policy adjustments and anti-suspension movements seeking to tone down the severity of school punishments, Flores’ stories of excessively punitive measures against wrongdoings are not isolated incidents, but a recurring problem in the Chicago Public School system.

In 2012, CPS revised the Student Code of Conduct (SCC) to make substantive changes in the punitive discipline of student misconduct. Some of the major changes included limiting the mandatory 10-day suspension for serious offenses and reducing the out-of-school suspension days. The revised SCC is more geared towards a proactive response to juvenile delinquency, replacing punitive justice with steps that emphasize intervention and conflict resolution.

“I am a strong believer in limiting mandatory disciplinary actions that remove a child from their classroom and school, which, in many cases, ultimately causes more harm than good for those students,” said CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard in a CPS press release at the time.

More recently, CPS, now under the leadership of Barbara Byrd-Bennett, has been showing efforts to rule out the zero-tolerance policy in order to further reduce suspension rates. Byrd-Bennett has been strengthening the Suspensions and Expulsions Reduction Plan (SERP), which has been seeing positive changes in reduced suspension rates and student misconduct.

“We know that suspensions cut into instructional time, and keep our students out of the classroom,” Byrd-Bennett said in a recent CPS press release. “The Student Code of Conduct that we implemented brought great results — a 36 percent decline in suspensions — and gave our students the support they needed while keeping them in school and learning.”

Even though the loosening of punitive measures in the SCC has in fact led to an 18 percent decrease in out-of-school suspension (OSS) rates for high schools students from 2011 to 2013 school year, the decrease in OSS rates seems to be heavily concentrated only in the Southwest and the North-Northwest Side schools — South Side, Far South Side and West Side schools show either stagnant or increasing suspension rates (Figure 1). In addition, even though the length of suspension has decreased by 16.54 percent, about 33 out of 100 students still receive OSS. While 82 percent of misconducts result in in- and out-of-school suspensions, only 12 percent are handled using restorative methods (Figure 2).

According to the CPS FY14 Budget, CPS reserved more than $56 million for school security personnel, and more than $47 million for the Office of School Safety and Security, which would increase the presence of security officers, metal detectors, and surveillance cameras in schools. In contrast, only $24 million were budgeted for psychological service personnel that would help in restorative handling of student conduct.

While Brizard claimed that the revision of the SCC would provide the groundwork for creating “more positive and safe learning environments” for CPS students, the testimonies of students and restorative justice advocates tell a different story.

Treyonda Towns, a mother of CPS student and a Leadership Council member at Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), believes that the situation is just as bad as before the changes in the SCC took place.

“The problem is that the police are handling issues that staff members should be handing, for things like tardiness,” Towns said. “They don’t even care to know that the kid barely had car fare to get to school and had to walk the extra mile every day.”

Towns worries that situations often get blown out of proportion — many students get taken out of classrooms in handcuffs for offenses like smoking in the bathroom and fighting. Despite the much-publicized changes to the rulebook, many regard the school administration’s handling of students as still heavy-handed.

“We definitely do see some of the [punitive] practices still evident,” Towns said. “Even though it was a big success after meetings and supports and continual campaigning, in the end it was just a change in language.”

Ethan Ucker, a restorative justice program staff at Community Justice for Youth Institute, agrees that CPS is not making a proactive effort to keep troublesome students in school.

“The punitive discipline in Chicago Public Schools is unofficially continuing — there’s not been a lot of progress,” Ucker said. “Schools need to realize there are alternative ways of managing and solving problems.”

Ucker is just one of many participants at restorative justice programs that strive to fill in where the school administrators might fall short in dealing with students. According to Ucker, restorative justice, rather than punitive justice, seeks to open up students by arriving at the core of problems through conversations and group exercises.

“We believe in bringing together all folks who have been in the conflict, not just the students but also teachers, friends and parents,” Ucker said.

Hope Lassen, Restorative Justice Program manager at Alternatives Youth, also believes that simply having the students’ voices be heard allows for a more constructive conflict resolution.

“Schools use punitive discipline; they ask what rule was broken, who did it and what punishment they deserve,” Lassen said, “But the restorative discipline asks who was hurt, what are their needs, and whose obligation it is to make it right. We simply ask what we can learn from the experience and improve.”

One of the most essential parts of Alternatives Youth’s restorative program is weekly “Circles,” which is essentially a talking session in which the responsible student and the affected party express their feelings on the matter. A “talking piece” — an item of meaning or value to the circle keeper — is passed around, and the person holding the talking piece has the rights to speak whatever is on his or her mind.

As easy as it sounds, Lassen believes that some of the most significant obstacles in enforcing restorative justice are the school administrators and rule enforcers, rather than troublesome students.

“When we run into trouble during these sessions, it’s usually never the children,” Lassen said, explaining that some teachers are skeptical of the restorative method and uncooperative with dealing with rebellious youths. “Administrators are tough on rule violations, and it’s very difficult to shift that culture of punitive justice in schools.”

According to Lassen, such a reliance on suspension hinders the implementation of a more proactive and restorative approach to dealing with students.

“When issues arise, for schools, it’s easier to kick them out,” Lassen said, “And this makes it kind of hard to deal with these situations in a meaningful way.”

However, Lassen believes that programs like Alternatives Youth helps students overcome their problems by connecting and sharing, and she sees that students and teachers who sit in the weekly circles can really feel and show the difference.

“There were quite a few students referred to our peer conference sessions for getting into fights,” Lassen said, “But after having resolved their conflict with our program, they ended up becoming peace ambassadors for their school. They no longer get into any fights or issues; now they want to help their friends.”

Flores says that being involved in peace circles at his schools has helped him immensely in staying out of trouble and solving conflicts, because it shows him that his school actually cares about his success.

“In peace circles, there’s no suspensions, no expulsion or anything like that,” Flores said, “When you have a conflict, you talk about the issue, you start learning about the person, and you realize why he got offended. They let you voice your own opinion.”

Towns also believes that restorative justice program is making a positive change little by little — recently, she saw 85 students who went through her program enter the dean’s list at their schools.

As a peacemaker facilitator, but also as a parent, Towns feels much more personally connected to the issue of restorative justice in CPS. In 2008, Towns’ young daughter became a victim of a homicide in her neighborhood. Instead of losing all hope, Towns decided to put her efforts into making the community a more welcoming place for the youth.

“It’s no longer about the math and test scores and reading and writing; it’s about the basic skills of communication and empathy,” Towns said. “Restorative justice is not just a program; it’s a philosophy, it’s a way of life.”

For statistics compiled by Project NIA on what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline in Chicago, click here.

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