January 20, 2014 | by Ted Christians

Restorative Justice as an Alternative to Zero Tolerance

PeaceSignSmaller.jpgMartin Luther King Jr. said that "Real peace is not just the absence of conflict – it is the presence of justice." As I reflect on today's holiday marking Dr. King’s birthday, I applaud Secretary Arne Duncan and the Department of Education’s recent release of new federal discipline guidelines for states and school districts (“CPS says it will consider new federal school discipline guidelines", Becky Schlikerman, 1/8/2014). 

Zero tolerance does not promote justice, nor does it promote peace. It only serves to strengthen the “school to prison pipeline” and further distance our young people most in need from the very thing we all agree is an essential part of the solution – education. In Illinois, one of every four African American public school students was suspended at least once during the 2009/2010 school year – the highest rate in the country.

The research is clear, young people who drop out of high school, many of whom have been on a path of suspensions, are more than eight times more likely to be incarcerated as those who graduate. Related, every year a student gets closer to achieving their high school diploma, the risk of that young person being involved either as a victim or perpetrator of violence decreases. 

As a nonprofit working in deep partnership with high schools in Chicago since our inception in 1997, Umoja sees high schools as a strategic arena for preventing and interrupting violence and trauma. We believe that we as a city can no longer afford to push our young people out of our schools and into the street with the criminal justice system as our only response. Traditional approaches of suspension and expulsion only dramatically increase the likelihood that a next altercation will end up in physical harm, incarceration or death. As we’re all aware – hurt people hurt other people.

As an alternative, Umoja’s restorative justice model focuses on creating a peaceful school culture and climate. Using peace circles, peer mediations and implementing restorative discipline policies, Umoja partners with administrators and school teams across the city who are deeply committed to keeping young people in our schools and in our classrooms where we have the opportunity to teach skills, influence positive choices and restore both the person doing the harm and those harmed to the school community. 

Ultimately, Umoja envisions high schools that are not just islands of peace or recognized as safe spaces in themselves, but are hubs for generating peaceful practices and influencing and equipping young people and adults to bring those practices out to their families and into their communities. Keeping our young people in our schools is in our collective interest. After all, it is educated and emotionally healthy graduates who are equipped to transition to higher education and work who will ensure that Chicago retains its rightful place as a competitive global city.

While I am encouraged by the federal call to action to dismantle the school to prison pipeline, we also know that schools simply cannot do it alone. And while we share in the hope offered by the recent declines in violence in Chicago, we cannot afford to lose the urgency. Making a less-violent Chicago a permanent reality is not just about a decrease in the number of homicides, as I imagine Dr. King would say, it’s about the presence of a healthy Chicago for all. For Umoja, well-resourced schools and a quality education for every student in every neighborhood are an essential part of the solution.

*This is an extended version of a letter to the editor printed in the Sun-Times online edition. To read the original click here.