Restoration in CPS

I’ve been reading, writing, thinking about schools as sites of love. Nationwide, districts are moving toward less punitive and more restorative approaches to school discipline. This shift comes at a time when the civil rights arms of the Department of Education and Department of Justice released guidance to districts about minimizing discriminatory and exclusionary discipline policies.

I’ve read comments complaining that humane approaches to discipline mean ignoring misbehavior and allowing classrooms to deteriorate into chaos. This does not reflect the reality of schools that work to improve their climates nor the students and communities who are positively impacted by the changes.

Moving away from zero tolerance and other harsh discipline codes requires a multi-pronged approach including:

  • supporting teachers with classroom management,
  • helping faculty and staff unpack racial and ethnic stereotypes
  • eliminating zero-tolerance policies which by definition ignore context and mediation
  • regularly reviewing discipline policies for alignment with student achievement goals and common sense
  • reviewing discipline records for consistent application of policies
  • decriminalizing simple student misbehavior
  • devising thoughtful approaches to correct and redirect unwanted behaviors

Late last week, the Chicago Tribune published this piece about Chicago Public Schools (CPS) working toward restoration.

“Chicago Public Schools has one of the highest suspension and expulsion rates and the disproportionate use of suspensions,” {District chief} Byrd-Bennett said. “We are going to reverse that trend.”

Efforts are underway to collaborate with the privately run charter schools within the district, but challenges may be ahead:

The city’s charter schools have been criticized for pushing out troubled children with harsh discipline policies and fines. Charter leaders have maintained that tougher discipline has led to safer schools.

The Illinois Network of Charter Schools said in a written statement that it takes “very seriously” the use of appropriate discipline, and looks forward to collaborating with CPS to examine the issue. 

“Chicago charter public schools have a history of adopting proven and innovative approaches to creating a school culture that works to avoid the most punitive responses to behavior issues,” the statement said.

As I read this, I’m wondering about the relationship between “tougher discipline” and “innovative approaches” that “avoid the most punitive responses to behavior issues.” Tough is associated with punitive and retributive, not restorative.

Read the piece in full here.

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The undoing of schools as prisons

I have a post in draft form that pulls together a couple of recent articles related to schools as sites of love, but I didn’t want to let the day pass without sharing this piece from the Atlantic.

Last year I wrote for The Atlantic about a notorious North Philadelphia junior high school known for years as the “Jones Jail.” Its rambunctious students wreaked such terror on the neighborhood that the police put the streets surrounding the school on lockdown every day at dismissal. Nearby shop-keepers locked their doors and porches as 800 of the city’s poorest kids streamed out the doors, often reportedly climbing over parked cars in their unruly rush to get out of school. When the John Paul Jones Middle School was taken charter and reopened as the Memphis Street Academy, the new administration decided, to the mystified dismay of the police department , that they would strip the school of metal detectors and window gratings, get rid of the security guards, and instead utilize nonviolence based restorative practices.

The number of violent incidents dropped 90 percent in a single year.

Since Memphis Street Academy initiated restorative practices, the police department says they no longer need to send the 11 patrol officers they used to send every day to oversee the hectic and potentially explosive dismissal time.

The writer, a social worker with experience in schools and criminal justice, makes the case that punitive measures sans restoration can serve more harm than good. Restorative practices, which are designed to repair harm rather than cause it, are mentioned in new guidelines released by the Department of Education and Department of Justice (.pdf). I’m excited to read them and I’ll share my findings here. My goal is not simply to report on schools as sites of love, but also to advocate for their creation.

Read the rest of Jeff’s piece here. Don’t miss his original piece on “Jones Jail,” the Philadelphia school that bet on restoration over retribution, and won.

Schools as sites of love

Love is one of my favorite topics. Especially love as it plays out in society. Since it’s something I speak about and highlight often, even without provocation, I’ve decided to write more about it this year.

Love is a broad idea, so I’ve been brainstorming ways to approach it in meaningful slices. Given my professional background, it seems a good place to start would be schools as sites of love (or not). With my concurrent interests in prison abolition, the school to prison pipeline, and restorative justice, love is perhaps a natural lens through which to consider those intersections.

To that end, I’d like to share this piece from yesterday’s Washington Post. School leaders in Alexandria agreed to implement a restorative justice program this school year. The school year is halfway over, and the program has yet to begin. Students are upset. They believe school is a place of learning.

“I think school can be a place where you learn from your mistakes,” said Ana Diaz, 16, a junior at T.C. Williams. “We should be taught how to be a better person and how to do things better. [It should not be] a place where you did something wrong and so you got kicked out.”

Restorative programs focus on healing and repairing harm done. They provide an opportunity for all involved in a given incident – the offender, the victim and the community – to participate in justice. Everyone can learn. Everyone can grow. This premise, that students and teachers are human and may benefit from healing rather than payback or vengeance, is loving.

Such approaches are not quick fixes. They are not “off-the-shelf” programs one can just disseminate in a school. They do require research and professional development. According to officials, this is the cause of the delay this year:

Kelly Alexander, a spokeswoman for Alexandria schools, said officials agree with the principles of restorative justice and are committed to introducing it at the high school. “We are attempting to gather good information before we take the next steps,” she said.

Read the article in full here. Beware of the comments.

Pondering love.

Love has been on my mind a lot in recent years. Romantic love, sure, but most often I’m mulling societal love. See, I have a theory: much of what ails society is rooted in distrust and competitionThe way we go about healing is rooted in love.

Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely,
both an intention and an action.
Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.
~M. Scott Peck as quoted by bell hooks

From where I stand, it seems a lot of what transpires in daily life is a deliberate choice to avoid love. It’s like we go out of our way to be cold and closed off or simply mean. All day in schools we yell at children who were yelled at or ignored at home the night before, and we wonder why they aren’t more “civilized.” We criminalize any behavior we think is the least bit out of bounds, and put forth little effort into prevention in the first place, or rehabilitation in the second. We sue folks for trying to come to our aid, so people live in fear of being helpful. We do any and everything but love.

And that’s why love is a revolutionary act – because there isn’t enough of the doing of love these days. There’s more than enough talk about finding a mate, or keeping one. But it’s a might too quiet on the love thy neighbor front. It’s sad really, and ultimately dangerous. A loveless society can only create more of the same, no? Physical and mental abuse are not born of love. Wars are not initiated by people who are acting from love. Fear. Domination. Revenge. Power. But not love.

We are taught to believe love just happens. And you fall in it, or as the creatives now say, you rise in it. In any case, allegedly love happens to you, and then you respond. But let’s consider that maybe love is something you do, rather than something that shows up out of the clear blue sky. Then we can be more intentional in our actions, as M. Scott Peck suggests. Think of an active participation in love, rather than a passive one. So what, then, might doing love entail?

To truly love we must learn to mix various ingredients –
care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, and trust,
as well as honest and open communication.
~bell hooks

The affection part is what we know and feel most readily, but what of the rest? Caring for something or someone takes effort. Think about house plants or your pet. When you care for them, you’re doing something – feeding, nurturing, soothing, what have you. You’re not just feeling affection; you’re acting.

And what of recognition? If we would engage the effort to recognize one another for who we really are, rather than who we imagine, what a loving act that would be. How often do you feel seen, truly seen, recognized, for who you are? What would it take to be recognized? Honest communication is certainly a start. And I would go so far as to say that communication must happen within oneself as surely as it must happen between ourselves and others. In other words, our responsibility to societal love is grounded, in part, in our responsibility to care for, recognize, respect, and trust ourselves.

Let’s spend more time pondering a theory of love. And then more time still practicing love with ourselves and those around us. Your time and attention to love moves us all closer to healing. 

Abiding Love

Some years are made for themes. They begin with declarations, resolutions, bucket lists, big bangs, and the like. Two years ago I opened 2011 fierce, bold, courageous.

As if 3.5 years of grad school weren’t enough, in 2011 I found myself desirous of more profound and personal challenges. I wanted to face things that scared me. Push myself beyond self-imposed limitations.

Despite the steps I took to face seeming fears out there, I soon discovered the real fears were within. Towering at times. Moments of clarity and honesty produced tools for dismantling and dissolving. I chiseled and chipped and melted fears after hours of prayers, reflection, and tearful storytelling. Truth-telling to the one I lied most often: me.

2012 did not open with a declaration. And throughout the year I sought the theme retroactively. Eventually I figured out that I never really concluded the learning, pushing and fear facing of 2011. And so not one, but two years were about fear and overcoming it.

Now a new year has dawned, and to fear and fearlessness I say, “thank you.” Fear and the efforts to win over it, are great teachers. The most important lesson, the most beautiful gift, was love.

I am no longer interested in the framing, facing or challenging of fear. Instead I seek, welcome, embrace and share love.

2013 is the Year of Abiding Love. 

And so it is.

Love at First Sight | #30in30 #WriteLikeCrazy

Brida’s mom and dad were soul mates. Yet one day, her mom relayed the story of a loving encounter with another man. She sought solace about life, and headed to church to pray. He was awaiting a mechanic and visited that church to pass the time. The two began talking life and civilizations past (he was an archaeologist). Before long, the sun had set:

There was I, like a 38-year-old adolescent, feeling that someone desired me. He didn’t want me to leave. Then all of a sudden, he stopped talking. He looked deep into my eyes and smiled. It was as if he’d understood with his heart what I was thinking, and wanted to tell me that it was true, that I was very important to him. For some time, we said nothing, and then we said good-bye. The mechanic had still not arrived.

For many days, I wondered if that man really had existed, or if he was an angel sent by God to teach me the secret lessons of life. In the end, I decided that he had been a real man, a man who had loved me, even if only for an afternoon, and during that afternoon, he’d given me everything he had kept to himself throughout his whole life: his struggles, his joys, his difficulties, and his dreams. That afternoon I gave myself wholly as well – I was his companion, his wife, his audience, his lover. In a matter of only a few hours, I experienced the love of a lifetime.

From Brida by Paulo Coelho

I’m becoming more aware of my capacity to love. Or perhaps my capacity to love is expanding. Or both. In any case, I’m actively dismantling the fortress erected after a profound hurt. Walls reinforced by years of covert distrust. It’s been freeing – this heart opening, sharing of self.

Radical moments of vulnerability.  And they remind me that love is timeless. I couldn’t or wouldn’t always admit past love. Yet my delayed realization does not diminish the love that went unnamed.  I think the naming of love opens space for more love.

It is a channel for more of itself.

Or something like that.

And it’s not that I’ve found a soul mate. It’s simply that I’m learning to have more love for every day.  It’s energizing – being able to love, finally. And really, being able to love first. It’s dangerous, they may warn. Why spread love that hasn’t been earned? Is this or that person truly deserving of your love? Won’t it come back to haunt you? It’s the walls that haunt, not the love. They leave you trapped in echoes of distrust, regret, anger. Poison, all.

How much can you apportion (and receive) from your cage?

I say let us craft epilogues of love. And then weave love clear through to the end. Certainly would change a few stories, now wouldn’t it?

Letter to My Sister, a Soldier (or) Love is a Revolutionary Act

Note: I wrote this a few months ago – late winter, early spring. I sat on it for weeks and worked it a bit in June. Not sure why I’ve not posted it until now…

For the past several weeks, my flight has departed from or returned to the international terminal of the Atlanta airport. This, despite the fact that I was only traveling to and from Cleveland, of all places. Each week I have been struck – overcome really – by the abundance of soldiers in this terminal, dressed in their telltale camouflage. They’re men and sometimes women of all colors, sizes, ages. Sometimes on phones, sometimes on computers, sometimes deplaning from parts unknown, but oftentimes sitting. Waiting.

Today, however, I was struck by you.

Now for sure you are not the first female soldier I’ve ever seen. You are not the first black soldier I’ve ever seen. You are not the first black woman soldier I’ve ever seen. But today you captured my attention. Or more accurately, my heart.

As soon as I entered the concourse bathroom, I noticed you – slight, brown skin, dark hair slicked back in a ponytail. You looked eerily like me. Not babyishly young like some of the boys seem to look. Not particularly old like a career soldier on the verge of retirement perhaps; but about my age, maybe a little younger, a tad slimmer. You were going through your toiletries. It seemed you were unpacking. Repacking. Shifting. Transferring things from one pouch to another. Organizing perhaps. I don’t know, but I was moved.

She is me, I thought.

I felt my heart bursting with the overwhelming desire to embrace you. It was as if I were a vessel and Goddess wanted to send you a message of love.

I resisted it at first and headed to a stall. Yet I rushed, hoping you’d still be there when I finished, even though I really didn’t know if I had the courage to approach you. When I emerged, I washed my hands slowly, decidedly shy, stalling for time as other women entered the bathroom.

This is so silly, I said to myself, heart racing, belly full of butterflies. It’s just a hug.

You, still arranging. Me, hanging back, primping in the mirror a few paces to your right. Breath, shallow. Feet, cement blocks. I silently hurried the other women along. I didn’t want to sound crazy, I guess, to them or to you. The voice, the feeling, the knowingness – urged me, You have to do this.

I applied more burgundy lip gloss. Retied the matching scarf at my neck. Pulled my black dress straight. Gathering courage. Passing time.

Finally, coast clear, deep inhale, I approached you.

Excuse me?

You turned to me, face and heart open. Curious. My words tumbled out, a hurried explanation, an apology, I just have the urge to give you a hug. The words barely free of my lips, you threw your arms around me. And we shared a moment. Spirit embodied in flesh. Life to life. Heart to heart.

Throats tight, eyes swimming, we echoed words of thanks to each other. And then, you pulled away, barely above a whisper, You’re about to make me cry in this bathroom. You shook your head, eyes down, turned away. More organizing, packing, shifting.

As soon as I saw you, I had the urge to hug you. I couldn’t leave this bathroom without doing it. My parting words a confession, tossed out gracelessly over my shoulder. And I left, plodding down the terminal corridor, choking back tears, heart full, exhale.

I replayed the moment again and again along my walk to the escalator. I hoped you knew that all I felt in that moment was love. All I wanted for you in that moment was love.

Not fear. Not shame. Not worry. Not doubt. None of those things a person normally feels. I just wanted you to know…love.

That moment we shared was a moment of revolution.
Because loving a stranger is a revolutionary act.
Loving a soldier is a revolutionary act.
Loving my sister is a revolutionary act.
Loving myself is a revolutionary act.
I saw me, in you, and I loved us both.