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October 29, 2013

Three Questions You Might Have About Umoja's Restorative Justice Work

WHAT IS RESTORATIVE JUSTICE?

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Restorative Justice (RJ) emphasizes repairing harm and addressing trauma, holding the harm-doer accountable for repairing that harm and involving everyone in restoring relationships. RJ is more than a program or practice; it is a mindset and an approach for how we live and function as a school community every day. For Umoja, this means working directly with students to develop the skills they need to resolve conflicts and prevent further conflicts. It’s also working with adults in the school to support their use of practices like Peace Circles and ensuring the overall integration of RJ principles into the school’s discipline practices and policies.

WHY DOES RESTORATIVE JUSTICE MATTER?

We know suspensions are not the answer – keeping students in school is. By keeping students in school, Umoja’s RJ program helps reduce violence and increase high school graduation rates. As we all know, the violence epidemic in Chicago is impacting more and more young people. In the 2012 calendar year, there were 693 juveniles shot with 428 being students at Chicago Public Schools (Chicago Police Department, 2012). Keeping students in school decreases violence – research indicates for every year a student gets closer to achieving their high school diploma, the risk of that young person being involved in violence decreases (Lochner & Moretti, 2004). Research also indicates suspension and expulsion are associated with a higher likelihood of school dropout and failure to graduate on time (Advancement Project, 2010). Since we first started our RJ work at Manley High School (Manley), out-of-school suspensions have decreased by almost 30% and the drop-out rate has decreased by 87%!

Statistics and research say a lot, but the stories of individual students speak volumes. One student at a partner school this past year, Terence, flipped over a desk during an altercation with his teacher. The security guards were called to the classroom to escort Terence to the Dean. A traditional punitive approach would have been a 3-day or even 10-day suspension, no questions asked. In that situation, if Terence, who is now out on the street, angry and frustrated, even does come back to school following his suspension, he’d go straight back into the classroom with that same teacher – ready for the same situation to play out again and again.

But through Umoja’s RJ work at the school, Terence went to the Peace Room instead. In initial conversations, Umoja’s RJ staff member discovered that Terence’s cousin was shot and killed two weeks earlier, and he had been bottling up the hurt and anger with nowhere to turn and no idea how to process this emotion. Umoja’s staff member was able to facilitate a Peace Circle with Terence’s teacher to repair that relationship, help Terence process his emotions and prevent future violence and disturbance.

WHERE IS UMOJA DOING RESTORATIVE JUSTICE?

Umoja has been expanding the RJ Program over the last year with support from our amazing school partners and our critical donors and investors. Last year we launched our first RJ program outside of Manley, customized specifically for Foreman High School (Foreman) in the Belmont-Cragin neighborhood. The student population there is much larger and more diverse than Manley’s population, proving what we already thought, that RJ works and is needed in a lot of different school settings! Our Peace Room at Foreman saw more than 430 cases last year, impacting more than 190 unduplicated students. Their disciplinary infractions related to physical altercations are down 15% and the school has embraced RJ as a response.

Our first translation went so well, we’ve added two more schools this year thanks in large part to a grant from Impact 100 Chicago. This year our RJ partner schools are literally across the entire city, from Sullivan High School in Rogers Park to South Shore International College Preparatory High School (SSICP) in South Shore to our continued work at Manley and Foreman. For example, the Peace Room at SSICP, funded by Impact 100 Chicago, is already off to a running start. So far Umoja’s Peace Room has already worked with 39 students and 14 staff members in the first few weeks of school. SSICP is a relatively new school, with only three grade levels of students (freshmen – juniors), so this is a unique opportunity to help shape a school’s culture and discipline policies from the beginning!

*Names have been changed to protect students’ privacy.