AREA Dialogue: Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Pipeline

What is the relationship between the discipline practices at Chicago Public Schools and the alarming rates of young people of color being locked up?

The “Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Pipeline” offers a powerful way of looking at the relationship between approaches to discipline at Chicago Public Schools (CPS), and the alarming rates of young people of color being arrested and locked up. This discussion was organized and facilitated by Margaret Hughes (MH) of the Community Justice for Youth Institute (CJYI). The discussants are: Nelida Torres (NT) from Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew–Policy Action Council (POWER-PAC); Kellie Magnuson (KM) from Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI); Charles Bagget (CB) and Martine Caverl (MC) from Blocks Together; as well as Robert Spicer (RS) and Ora Schub (OS) from the Community Justice for Youth Institute (CJYI).

MH How did you become involved in work around the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Pipeline?

CB I got involved with the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Pipeline by first filing out a petition for a library and later on meeting Martine. She asked me, how do I feel about my school. I told her that no one was doing their job in the right way. And she asked me, how do I think that I can fix that? I told her, honestly, I don’t know. She said, well, maybe you can join the Blocks Together Youth Council. I said, ok. And that was in the Spring of 2006. And from then on, I got involved in the youth campaign, Graduate Don’t Incarcerate. It seems like we’ve been making a difference, for children in schools all over Chicago.

MC The Blocks Together Youth Council started working on Schoolhouse to Jailhouse back in the Spring of 2005. The Youth Council had a campaign that looked at the behavior of security guards at CPS and demanded new hiring and training requirements. But in 2004 the organization started looking at some of these criminal justice issues differently and was really trying to figure out, what the conditions are that even allow some security guards to abuse their power. So we really started looking at the ideas about youth that make people think that we need se-curity guards and police in our schools. How do you challenge those ideas about young people?

Also, some of our members were getting arrested at school for just really minor stuff, and having other problems with discipline rules. It was around then that we started doing some political education sessions about the issue. The youth were kind of talking about what was going on in their schools and how it was connected to what was going on in their neighborhoods. And it was around that time that the Advancement Project, a national advocacy group from Washington, DC came out with a study that actually looked at Chicago and how many students are being arrested in Chicago schools, and the reasons why they’re being arrested. We went over some of the stuff in their report at our youth council meeting and they were really surprised. Almost 9,000 kids getting arrested for fights and for disorderly conduct and it’s all sounding familiar. So from there we started working on the campaign.

RS Community Justice for Youth Institute got involved in Schoolhouse to Jailhouse—it really started through our diversion program, Community Panels for Youth. We get youth who are diverted through the State’s Attorney’s department into our program, and we give the youth an alternative to going through the system. By giving community members the tools through restorative justice, to help the victim and the person who committed the harm to be able to help to sit together, to discuss, and to move from there. Helping the one who committed the offense to then begin the process of repairing the harm that he or she had caused. In 2004 in the Spring, we had received over 45 cases from one particular community on the West Side. And they all were batteries or disorderly conducts. And it brought to our attention that something is really going on.

Then when the numbers came out, which [the Advancement Project] had gotten from the Chicago Public Schools’ legal department, we realized that this was an issue we really needed to be a part of because all the cases that were being diverted were coming from the schools. So we realized we needed to come into the school, and figure out a way to give the schools tools so that they can reduce this whole reliance on suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.

NT When we first formed POWER-PAC, one of the questions that we asked the parents city-wide was what issue they have that they would like us to resolve. And one of the issues was about the discipline, the way that kids in elementary were being treated. Kids, from kindergarten, are getting suspended for ridiculous things, for shoving another student in the lunch rooms or in the hallways. That kind of stuff. And this was brought up because one of our parents from Austin, his niece got suspended for 5 days. And she was just in kindergarten. The school had just started in September, and in October this happened. This incident happened, and we’re like no, this needs to stop. So we ended up making a committee called the Elementary Justice Campaign Committee.

KM We also do organizing in Austin. Our Austin-wide group out there is called the Austin-wide Parent Network. The parent team there decided to write a letter to the principal and challenge her and say, you know, we’re curious as to why all these out of school suspensions were going on. And the reply they got from her was, “There’s no need to be alarmed. We only had 300 out-of-school suspensions last year,” which infuriated parents. This is a school that went from kindergarten to 5th grade, maybe 900 students. Parents were outraged and sent a letter to Arne Duncan, and followed up on the local level. I think that really spurred what Nelly was talking about, where they came back on the larger POWER-PAC and said, “This is an issue in our community, let’s find out if it’s going on in other communities.” It turned out that when they went out and asked people, that it was going on across the board in the low-income communities of color where power-pac has its membership bases.

MH What have your groups been doing to ad-dress this issue since you first became involved?

NT First of all we went to the Board of Education in October of 2004. And we brought it up to Michael Scott’s attention because he was the President of cps. We wanted to do a survey and a forum on the Elementary Justice Campaign, and he was all for it. So we did three in 2005. We interviewed parents in three areas, Englewood, Austin and Humboldt Park. What is it that they think is the Uniform Discipline Code? Most of the parent were like, that’s just a book telling how the kids should be dressed when they go to school. We were just informing them no, this is a code of conduct to indicate to parents, when a child does something wrong in school, this is how they’re supposed to be treated and handled, instead of being arrested and sent to jail. So we brought it to a lot of parents’ attention, and they were extremely shocked that that’s what the uniform disciplinary code is all about.

From the forums we did in 2005 we came up with five recommendations: Implement pilots of alternative restorative programs in the schools. Stop out-of-school suspensions; let that be the last resort. Reinstate recess into all the public schools, if possible. And so far we have some schools that brought recess back, because that is a must. Parents feel that it’s a must because kids need to take at least ten to fifteen minutes as a break to let off that steam, and come back to the classroom being ready to learn. The other one was accountability, and the fifth one was parent training on the discipline code.

MH Does anyone else want to speak to the question?

MC In June of 2005 we had a meeting with Arne Duncan. He agreed with us that cps should be taking more responsibility for discipline and not relying on the police, and he agreed that they should keep numbers on how many kids are getting arrested in schools. After he confirmed that we could have another meeting with him, he didn’t follow through. In the end, we were able to push Arne Duncan to take some action, to make sure that they were changing the discipline code. But the most important thing was that he came to the neighborhood and met with young people in their space.

OS You also had demonstrations.

KM And you had a press conference.

MC And we did some research. We went out in the summer of 2005 and surveyed a lot of youth in the neighborhood about what happened to them at school and what they thought about the issue. They said that this zero tolerance policy doesn’t really work, things aren’t really getting safer, in our schools or our neighborhoods. A lot of them said that if students were treated with more respect and dignity that things would be better in the schools, and that if more resources were going towards general things like paying counselors, then maybe we’d see problems going down. Then we did presentations in the neighborhood about what we found out.

CB Another thing we do are Know-Your-Rights Workshops. We did one with elementary school students from different schools because we thought that the earlier that students know their rights in school, the better it’s going to be for them. It seemed like they were eager to learn, and we showed them how the schools use punitive justice more than restorative justice, all the time. We also did a little skit about police because a lot of kids know the routine, but they don’t know how it’s really supposed to go.

MH Do you think it was good to do those workshops with elementary school students?

OS This is not the first time that this has been happening. This has been going on a long time in Chicago, and other groups and collaborations have worked on this. Community Justice for Youth has worked on the criminalization of youth before and also about the schools. Generation Y out of the Southwest Youth Collaborative, and some of the same people that are at the table now. What’s interesting about this is that because of the report the Advancement Project did, we had a window of opportunity. It’s been an excellent collaboration, for the past 2 years, to deal with disproportionate minority contact and with Schoolhouse to Jailhouse. On the policy level we decided that something had to be done about the school code. We met with the people from power-pac, from Blocks Together, and many other people, to look at what can you do to change this abomination that they call a code. Even starting with its name, which people think refers to a dress code, and justifiably so, written in language that no one can understand, and yet are expected to follow. You can interpret one thing as a fight under one through three, and the young person could stay in school, which is what makes sense. Or they can get suspended or they can get arrested and have a record, which they can’t do anything about until they’re 17. All for stuff that we’ve all done when we were young people and nothing happened, because basically that’s what young people do.

We had numerous meetings with James Bebley, who is like the second in command in the legal department. We had meetings not only with the alternative schools but also with the charter schools, and we got requests from many of the public schools, about doing circles and other restorative justice. When I say we, I’m not just talking about Community Justice for Youth Institute (CJYI), I’m talking about all of us because usually when one of us gets called, it means all of us get called. We work in collaboration with each other.

At CJYI, as part of our philosophy, for it really to work properly it has to be grounded in the community, it has to be owned by the community. Even more importantly than all of that is that the youth have to be involved. These are their rules and regulations, and these are schools that are supposed to be educating them. If you got somebody else as the voice for them, then it’s not gonna work. We’re talking about a cultural change. If you want we’re talking about a real revolution, a revolution that if put in effect will make a change so that our children, our youth are not being fed into a vicious criminal system, or juvenile system. And I don’t say juvenile justice system, because I don’t believe there’s any justice in it.

MH Let’s talk some more about the successes that you all have had.

OS One of the things that happened that was so amazing is that we got a revision in the code. There is no zero-tolerance mentioned in that code anywhere, which is phenomenal. And restor-ative justice [is] in there. We got a lot more work to do, but that’s in there. And we were asked to do an introduction to restorative justice, which we did for every single one of the principles and some of the disciplinarians in the Chicago Public Schools this past year—which was a tremendous inroad, to be followed up in the schools.

KM One of power-pac’s successes has been that they gained a commitment from Michael Scott, who’s the former Board president, to do ten pilot alternative discipline programs in the elementary schools. He has since then left, so we have had conversations with [James] Bebley, so there is money, and it’s in the process of figuring out the schools, and the details are being worked out right now for that. We don’t know that ten are going to take place this year, but if we can get a couple of them running…

And the other piece of it that came really through the group of people that have been meeting together around this is what’s called the Austin Peace Center. It came through some of the people who have been involved in the collaboration. And generally the culture of the school has been changing, a parent leader, Lynn Morton, has been asked to do circles within classrooms. It’s a major pilot that’s up and running, that’s working and is helping kids stay out of the criminal system. But that also is working to change the culture of that school, and this year is expanding to a second school in Austin.

OS That Peace Center is so important, that is phenomenal.

KM It’s the school where there were 300 suspensions. One of the most powerful pieces is that parents said, what would it look like if we didn’t have suspensions? What are some alternatives? As part of the parents’ process of figuring out what they want, they had interviewed people from CJYI, they’d interviewed Bernadine Dohrn from Northwestern University. I think that was one of the places where the collaboration really was helpful for parents. Because they could speak from their own experiences, and be the experts on their own experiences and also collaborate with other people who may be more policy experts.

MH Talk about some of the challenges we face in this work.

CB One of my biggest challenges is to get the message that it doesn’t matter what color you are, or how old you are—none of that—it just matters what you want to be in life and how determined you are to get it. The challenge would be to get that message across to people younger than me, and also to some who are in the adult generation that are more arrogant than others. I’d have to say that would be my biggest challenge of all. Getting the message across to the younger generation and also to the older generation, that’s hard.

RS One of the major challenges that we had to overcome as were doing this work was relationship building. As we were getting closer to getting some type of understanding we reached an impasse between our respective organizations, and Chicago Public Schools. What we realized as we were going through is that we needed them as much as they needed us. One of our friends that work with us, a woman by the name of Edith Crigler from Chicago Area Project asked if we could have a circle with our group and Chicago Public Schools, the legal department James Bebley and others. To talk about this impasse that we are in, and to get over this to get back to the great work that we had started. We had two circles, and because of confidentiality I cannot share what happened in the circles—but I can say, with satisfaction in my heart, [that] we were able to get it together to trust each other again. We were able to put in on page two of the code that the Chicago Public School, all 600 Schools, 38,000 teachers, 1,500 principals, vice principals and support staff, and the 491,000 young people will now be under the umbrella of the philosophy of restorative justice. We’re so thankful that we were able to figure out a way to get it right.

NT The other success that we had is actually changing the name of the discipline code, we actually got the board of cps to change it to the Student Code of Conduct. And that was part of POWER-PAC, is that they need to change the title for parents to understand it.

KM Even if we make change at the top policy level it doesn’t always trickle down in schools, and in fact generally it doesn’t. We really feel like, not only do we need to change policy and to change the way people think, we also have to work at individual school levels and what the culture and the climate at individual schools is like. That’s a really large challenge for parents and youth. Not only do you have to fight the good fight and get the policy and the language changes; every day you have to go into this institution that have lots of people with authority that want to continue doing things the same way it’s been done. At each individual school level you have to figure out what’s a strategy for changing the culture.

MC One of the big challenges for us is that we are really trying to do youth organizing on the issue, and to put out there that what youth have to say is legitimate.

MH How does this work relate to your understanding of justice?

CB Many of the people, like the teachers, treat the kids like ragdolls, and don’t care if they learn or not, just about their paycheck. And just because you’re young and the way you dress they think you don’t want to go on to do things, good things. That’s only my opinion. Teachers should teach the students like they would teach their own kids.

NT Justice to me means, some way of instead of having things dealt with by the police, having some kind of alternative way of addressing the issues. Where the kids and the parents both understand what was the problem, what was mishandled, or what was done wrong in the public schools. The problem with CPS is the communication, they don’t know how to communicate with the parents, and they feel like if they can’t communicate with the parents they can’t communicate with the children, and they throw that out the window. How are we gonna get anything resolved?

KM What if you took a step back and you imagined Von Humboldt as a place that was family friendly or friendly to parents.

NT If Von Humboldt would change, the parents would feel that they can walk in and discuss any thing that worries them. What are they being taught? Is it worth having this much structured time? Are they getting enough healthy foods? Are they getting enough break time?

MC The problems that we’re having in the schools [are] a lot bigger than just the discipline code. It’s a lot of pieces, it’s opportunities for parents to get involvement, it’s people invested in the idea that young people deserve to be in a really good learning community, and not just come to a place where kids can be controlled.

OS For me, it’s a sense of fairness, I look and see what happens in the schools where there are white kids, and I see the same kinds of stuff that’s going on and I don’t see them getting thrown out. I don’t see them getting arrested. It’s about respecting all people. Respecting them means teaching them, really teaching them. And it means respecting their parents. It doesn’t mean making the school into a mini-prison. No matter how many times you check a kid, no matter how many metal detectors and all the rest you have, that’s not gonna make it safe. The school is becoming a microcosm of what the United States is doing. Justice is somewhere far off, I think what we’re talking about is fairness and defining certain ideals.

KM Justice is when people are actually having a say in what their lives are gonna be like.

Coalition Members Include:

—Karen Lambert, Christine Agaiby and Judy Gall, Alternatives Inc.

—Edith Crigler, Chicago Area Project

—Jonathan Peck and David Thibault-Munoz, Southwest Youth Collaborative (SWYC)

—Peter Newman, Resource Division of Juvenile Court

—Lynn Morton, POWER-PAC

—Azim Ramelize, Chicago Youth Services

—Patricia Zamora, Alternatives Peer Jury Program and Youth Struggling for Survival

—Cheryl Graves, Community Justice for Youth Institute

—Juana Harper, CPS Board of Education

—Liz Vastine, Neighborhood Restorative Justice Institute

—Stephen Beyer, Peacemaking Services —Kaye Wilson, consultant with Chicago Area Project

There was a parallel taskforce of defense attorneys and clinical law professors working on the same issues that sometimes sent a representative to the “Schoolhouse to Jailhouse” Coalition meetings. This taskforce included attorneys from the Northwestern School of Law Children and Family Justice Center, an attorney from the ACLU, and an attorney starting a legal clinic in a school in North Lawndale.

Judith Brown and Jim Freeman of the DC-based Advancement Project worked together with SWYC’s Generation Y and the Northwestern Legal Clinic on the Derailing the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track report referenced above.