LINCOLN PARK — During his seven years as assistant principal at Kenwood Academy, Michael Boraz learned to believe that punitive justice was the way to a disciplined and well-oiled school.
The idea of a "peace circle" to handle problems rather than a five-day suspension or even a transfer was almost laughable to him.
"We transferred a lot of kids out to other schools. We were punitive. We gave long suspensions. Even if kids had a shouting match in the hall, they might get a five-day out-of-school suspension," Boraz said. "That’s how I learned how to do it."
Paul Biasco says a wealth of research is guiding professionals away from suspensions:
Four weeks into the fall semester at Lincoln Park High School, where Boraz has been principal since 2010, he isn't laughing about that peace circle idea anymore.
Since partnering with Umoja Student Development Corporation and installing a comprehensive restorative justice program that includes a full-time peace room and staff member, the results have been astounding, Boraz said.
Attendance is up, conflicts are down and enemies are becoming friends inside the building.
Most recently a student refused to take his hat off in class and cursed out the teacher when he was repeatedly told to do so.
In the past, that would have likely ended with a suspension, but instead the school's new restorative justice specialist, Kristin McKay, spoke with the student and teacher separately and learned the student was dealing with the death of a close friend.
The idea is to give kids space to talk about how they feel about a conflict, McKay said.
"What kind of ownership can they take over the role they had in the conflict? How they can move forward?" she said.
In another case involving two groups of girls who were feuding, Boraz and McKay brought the students' parents into the peace room to fully understand the issue.
The students themselves arrived next and shortly after the two girls held a sleepover.
The process involves sitting in a circle of chairs in a newly designated peace room and taking turns talking, listening and getting to the bottom of an issue.
"High school tradition is 'rules and punishment,' so you hear something other than that, it's hard for you to get your mind around it," Boraz said.
The most promising improvements at the school have been attendance.
At the end of last school year, Boraz and his staff identified 300-plus students of the school's approximately 2,260 students had an attendance rate of 88 percent or lower.
Teachers from the school have been assigned three students each from that group to mentor them.
From that group, 250 students are above 91 percent this year, Boraz said, and 96 of them have 100 percent attendance.
"Sometimes kids don't come to school because they are having a problem with a teacher or with a classmate or they just aren't feeling valued as a whole," Boraz said. "I think right away with some of the interventions that we have done, kids will know if they have a problem the best place to come is school."
The restorative justice program involves more than just the peace room.
Teachers underwent four days of professional development at the start of the school year to change the overall mindset at Lincoln Park High School.
"It's a mindset or way of approaching the world where we treat each other like dignified human beings," said Illana Walden, Umoja's Chief Strategy Officer.
The idea is to not only limit suspensions, but to promote social and emotional learning.
"We had a little gap there," Boraz said. "It's just something that high schools aren't great at."
Lincoln Park is the fifth Chicago Public School that has partnered with Umoja and implemented the restorative justice program since it began in 2010 at Manley. Lincoln Park's Local School Council allocated $60,000 to Umoja for the program this year.
Other schools that has adopted the program include Sullivan High School, South Shore International College Prep and Foreman High School.
Umoja, which began as a program at Manley Career Academy High School in 1997 by Lila Leff, says its restorative justice program has resulted in a 11 percent reduction in out-of-school suspensions from 2012-2013 to 2013-2014 in the four schools using the plan.
At Lincoln Park, Boraz said suspensions are still being used, but on a "limited basis."
“Our hope would be is that the peace room becomes a way of doing business in the building," Boraz said. "We want this to become the paradigm of how a building operates."
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