More than 500 homicides were reported in the city of Chicago last year: 361 of the victims were African-American males; 220 were between the ages of 15 and 24.
In the fall of 2009, Christian Fenger High School became national news after violence took one of its own. A short while later, the school implemented a program that aims to squash America’s culture of violence. It’s called restorative justice, and for Fenger, it came after a particularly gruesome death.
One September afternoon, a fight stemming from an earlier gang-related shooting erupted just blocks from the school. Amateur video of the mob-like brawl showed dozens of people hurling punches, kicks, bottles and bricks at one another. Sophomore Derrion Albert was killed. He was the third Chicago Public School student killed, just a few weeks into the school year.
Senior Gerald Banks was a class behind Albert. He remembered always being on edge his freshman year. Banks recalled news cameras parked outside of the school every morning and fights every day.
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“Everybody had their backs turned, making sure nobody was going to swing,” Banks remembered.
Fenger's Culture and climate specialist Robert Spicer arrived at the school just two weeks before Albert’s death. He referred to Albert’s death as rock bottom, noting that the school had well over 375 arrests that year.
“A lot of these young people out here shooting and do all that stuff, they don’t want to do this," Spicer explained. "They don’t want to carry a gun. But they feel forced to—because they feel like nobody out here is going to protect them so they have to protect themselves. So the only way they can be heard and respected is if they carry a gun. That’s terrible.”
Fenger needed a new approach—which is exactly what Spicer was brought there to do; and so he started implementing restorative justice.
Restorative justice is a philosophy that centers around relationships and trust. It seeks to address the needs of the victim, the wrongdoer and the community. It’s also about healing: dressing the wounds many of these children leave raw and bare. The ones that eat at them until they’re overcome.
He saw an opportunity for Fenger to be the game changers to, as he put it, “show our society that it’s possible to go into an urban environment, introduce these practices and be able to bring civility and sanity back into that school, any school.”
Part of this process takes place in the peace room, just down the hall from the Fenger’s main office. There, on the floor, in the middle of the room, is a black and white mat. On it rests ”talking pieces” objects of significance to Spicer and the seniors who serve as peer jurors and help lead peace circles. The pieces are things like stuffed animals, a rain stick, a tree stump...when a member of the circle holds the talking piece, it’s their time to talk.
The peace room is where stakeholders in a conflict can come together to have a summit of sorts. Last week, a group of freshman girls gathered there after gossip got a little too close to a fight. With a potential 10-day suspension on the horizon, Spicer rerouted the girls to a peace circle.
Spicer told them that the circle was their time to be real. Their time to say what was on their minds. Because, as he put it, no one else was going to give them the time—not the dean and certainly not the real world.
“You know this is not a game," Spicer warned. "You know what’s waiting for you if you decide to take your attitude and go out here and do stupid, silly stuff—they ready to send you right up out of here. And that world out there, as cold as it is...it’s even colder without an education.”
That’s the meat and potatoes right there: The object of the game is to get kids back in class. Because a kid with an education is much more likely to survive.
“People who drop out from high school are much more likely to become gang-involved than those (who) do not. And we know that a very, very important predictor of graduating high school is being able to ready by third grade,” Tracey Meares, the Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law at Yale Law School, explained.
Meares’ research focuses on crime prevention strategies. She spent a great deal of time looking at the city of Chicago, particularly areas of high crime and poverty.
Meares subscribes to the idea that violence should be treated like a public health issue, more specifically, like a blood-born pathogen. Therefore the best violence-reduction strategy, as Meares described it, is to identify the people who are central to the network of crime, who occupy important places in densely connected networks, and to intervene to try to get them to stop engaging in violence.
Almost four years into Fenger’s philosophical switch, the rate of freshman on track to graduate rose to between 75 and 85 percent, from around 40. Arrests at school were down. So why not put a peace room in every school?
Ilana Zafran helps implement restorative justice programs in partner schools around Chicago. She said the biggest problem is patience. People want immediate results but changing a culture and restorative justice takestime.
The other criticism, Zafran explained, is that people want those who have wronged them to be held accountable. Or more intimately, when confronted, to admit their error and apologize. But, she said, sometimes people aren’t ready to admit wrongdoing. And that can be hard.
Back at Fenger, after the talking piece had been round the circle a few times, one of the freshman girls echoed Meares’ earlier point.
She explained that while she might be “the coolest, funniest short person you know,” if someone had a problem with her, she’d just avoid them. Because, she shared, her friend’s cousin was shot and killed over some ‘he-said-she-said stuff’—and if her friend had been there, she’d be gone too. And she wasn’t about to lose her life over something as small as all that. She wanted to be sure the group knew, for her, the situation was over. And asked them to let it go.
The hope is that young people can learn to let go. That they can squash things before they escalate, before someone raises a hand or a gun. Or that they share senior Ana Muniz’s philosophy on fighting.
“You need two people to fight—I’m not available. I’m never available. If you want to talk,” Muniz clarified, “I’m available to talk.”
Muniz, who was raised in Mexico, said she already took the lessons she’s learned to her family back home. She convened peace circles at her younger sister’s school. The hope is that peace circles continue to expand and that what’s happening at Fenger will continue to create ripples of peace.
Katie O’Brien is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @katieobez