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October 6, 2015 | Linze Rice, DNAinfo.com

Meet the 'Peace Queen' Who's Helping Reduce Trouble at Sullivan High

ROGERS PARK — When Aryanna Boatman talks, she keeps her hands folded in her lap and speaks softly, but with confidence.

The 17-year-old senior at Sullivan High School in Rogers Park sits in a powdered blue room where the walls are bespeckled with positive affirmations and there are translations of "peace" in several languages.

It's the Peace Room. A "safe place," Boatman says.

It's the place where students, and at times staff, come when they need to process an event, emotion or situation — like Boatman did last year when she nearly hit her former friend over the head with a chair during an argument at school.

 "I've learned that you just have to let some things go," Boatman said. "Because if you got all that stuff bottled up inside of you, you're not really gonna be focused on class. You'll be focused on the problems or issues, which is going to reflect on your grades."

Now Boatman, a Roseland resident who travels to the Rogers Park school at 6631 N. Bosworth Ave. and aims to become a nurse practitioner, says she encourages other students to choose peaceful, not violent, solutions to problems.

So what is the Peace Room? 

The Peace Room is part of a three-year program run by the student development group Umoja that places restorative justice specialists in schools. Restorative justice specialists and managers focus on emotional learning and conflict resolution rather than punishment. Participation is voluntary.

School officials say students may nominate themselves or someone else to use the Peace Room. Facilitators help groups, pairs and individuals work through personal problems, build trust and gain leadership skills.

Behind the push for tranquility at Sullivan is the manager of the Peace Room, Brielle Siskin, a 25-year-old graduate of the University of Michigan whose education focused on urban, community and African-American studies.

Around Sullivan, she's known by some as "Peace Queen."

"It's the idea that relationships are the glue of our community ... but sometimes those relationships are harmed — and when those relationships are harmed we need to be really intentional about repairing those because those are the key to our youth," Siskin said. "A lot of times we talk about, like, we don't hurt people for no reason."

The peace room is large enough groups of at least 15 can gather to work on problems or conflict resolution, as well as team-building. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

Becoming the "Peace Queen"

Siskin said when her third year is up at Sullivan next spring, she knows it will be tough to move on: she's developed deep emotional bonds with the students and staff.

It's just in her nature, she says.

"I guess I always knew I'd be a social worker," Siskin said with a laugh. When she was younger, she had written a letter addressed to herself five years in the future. When she reopened her letter, she saw that her engrained sense of helping others hadn't waned, she said.

Before working with Umoja in Chicago Public Schools, Siskin taught a class to male inmates at a Michigan jail, then went on to help recently released inmates readjust to normal life.

It was during this time she said she heard over and over again from the former criminals she counseled who told her that they wished they had a mentor earlier in life to give them the emotional and social support they needed to succeed. If they had, perhaps things may have been different, they said.

Those conversations stuck with Siskin, and motivate her to keep fighting for students' emotional well-being, she said.

"I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of my job," she said. "It's definitely stressful, it's draining ... A lot of times it's small successes, but that's kind of what really keeps me going."

Is it working?

According to data provided by Siskin, there were 804 voluntary visits from return users in the peace room in the 2014-15 school year, with 369 visiting only once. That same year, no students were arrested and 75 received suspensions, according to data provided by Sullivan principal Chad Adams.

According to 2014's CPS School Report Card, 22 students out of every 100 received an out-of-school suspension averaging 2.3 days. About 32.1 percent of "misconduct" at the school resulted in an out-of-school suspension, CPS data shows.

In all, 2014 saw a 63 percent decrease in the number of suspensions at Sullivan from the previous 2013-14 school year.

Data shows during the 2013-14 school year at Sullivan, 129 students received suspensions (65.5 out of every 100 students) averaging 3.3 days and four students were arrested. Nearly double the amount of incidents at the school, 62.4 percent, had resulted in out-of-school suspensions.

Still, 2013 was a 73 percent decrease in suspensions from the troubled 2012-13 school year — 479 suspensions in all and five arrests.

In 2012, students and faculty were still recovering from a brutal 2011 classroom brawl between two female students when in December at least 15 students were removed from the school after fights broke out between warring gang factions inside Sullivan.

Seniors Jonathan Binion and Aryanna Boatner, both 17, said the peace room has helped them work through major problems while at Sullivan and become more true to themselves. [DNAinfo/Linze Rice]

According to the provided data, suspensions at Sullivan have fallen overall about 85 percent since 2012-13 — the year both Umoja and Adams came to the Far North high school.

Despite a "very weak" safety rating of 17 out of 100 from students who participated in a 2014 survey about Sullivan, it was still the highest safety score since at least 2011 — which drew in a dismal score of 11.

Siskin and Adams say they believe the peace room has become an essential tool in the way the school handles behavior and discipline issues.

A recent report found trends among CPS suspension data that the district unevenly doled out punishments to students with a history of abuse or neglect, among other factors.

"A lot of safe people you can talk to"

Adams said lessons taught by Siskin through a restorative justice lens "embodies everything we do at Sullivan."

At the end of the day, he said it was "just as important" to him his students graduate learning about both algebra and emotional health.

"That they can resolve conflicts peacefully both will help them in college, career and life," Adams said.

For Jonathan Binion, a 17-year-old Sullivan senior set on attending Julliard in New York for acting, the impact of the program has been strong. For him, the peace room has become a place of safety and respite, he said.

He was first introduced to the room at a friend's suggestion after getting in a heated lunch room shouting match with another friend. Now, he said he's peacefully resolved conflicts among family members at home using tactics he learned through Siskin and her team.

He said Siskin taught he and his friend to channel empathy by thinking about what the other may have experienced just hours before getting into the argument — a turning point in Binion's life he says when he realized petty fights like his are often just covering for a deeper emotional wound.

Now, he too encourages other students to seek the peace room.

"I'm glad that I didn't let the friendship end over something petty," Binion said. "Give the peace room a chance. Even if it's not the peace room, there's other adults in this building that Brielle has trained to facilitate peace circles, so it's a lot of safe people you can talk to. It's a great chance if you do come."