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Student-Led Group Works for Peace at Clemente High School

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Student-Led Group Works for Peace at Clemente High School

When a Chicago public school student is killed, the effect on fellow students and staff is profound. In some schools, violence is a motivator for change. In the wake of the 24th student death this year, small groups of students across the city are beginning to take action themselves to stop the violence.

At Roberto Clemente Community Academy, sophomore Nathaniel Hayes and freshman Tinesha Hendrix are having a brutally honest conversation.

HAYES: I wanna ask you a question, but don’t get offended. Why do you still fight even though it affects your grades and stuff?
HENDRIX: People always messin’ with me, and I either do two things—I either fight them or cry. And I ain’t cryin’ no more, I’m just fight ‘em.

Tinesha’s not alone. In fact, most students in this room say that it’s impossible to defend their reputation without fighting. Freshman KySean Alexander had his own story to tell.

ALEXANDER: One time I tried to walk away from a fight, and the person just kept on coming in my face, so I smacked them.
STUDENT: Do you think you got your point across?
ALEXANDER: Yup. They didn’t do it no more.

Students here are participating in the first of a series of peace forums organized by the newly formed organization at Clemente—The Student Leadership Council. Its members are now tackling one of the school’s toughest issues—violence.

TINESHA: I think it needs to stop. Cause if they start fighting and get in trouble and come back, they might bring back a weapon like a gun or a knife, and somebody end up getting killed.

Students held a series of meetings asking students and staff to get real about what’s causing the violence. Over thirty educators attended the teacher forums. Many argued for more conflict resolution programs and a fairer discipline system. But at least one teacher, David Rose, admitted frustration to student facilitator Tenisha Taylor.

ROSE: Uh, I’m sorry, my job is to educate students. It’s the students’ job to come as prepared individuals ready to do that. If they can’t do that, why is it my job to break up fights...
TAYLOR: So they’re doing it in your classroom, and first of all, it’s disrespectful and it’s disrupting the other students’ learning.
ROSE: You’re absolutely right, but why is it my job to fix those situations?

Rose says he’s under the gun to meet academic standards. So how’s he supposed to find time to deal with social-emotional issues? Sophomore Angela Rivera thinks it needs to be part of his job.

RIVERA: In order for us to change the school, the teachers are going to have to help too, because they’re getting upset that we’re fighting and arguing—they’re not even taking action with us. After each series of forums, the council debriefs.

INSTRUCTOR: What did you learn from today’s forum?
STUDENT: That the teachers would not send their kids to this school.

The next stop was security officers. Students listened intently when Darlene Sierra-Clark told them what it’s like to work security at Clemente.

SIERRA-CLARK: Once you go to the ten zone, we have to go to the 20 zone. And that’s how we have to take control, you have to get control back of the situation.

Before the meeting, some questioned whether guards themselves should model different behavior if the climate of aggression is to change. Sophomore Nathaniel Hayes wished more security guards had showed up.

HAYES: That made me feel like the security guards, they’re not here to improve the school environment. They’re just here to get a job, get paid, and go home. And there’s only one person who’s actually interested in changing the school environment, so it’s kind of…very, very, you know—a disgrace.

Overall though, Hayes and the others felt they were making progress. Clemente staff was giving a lot of input and support.

Five weeks after they started, it’s the moment of reckoning. Clemente Principal Leonard Kenebrew is seated at a table with fellow administrators and staff. He jots down notes as students take turns presenting their recommendations.

STUDENT: We’ve learned that the problem with students, teachers, and staff is that they feel there’s not enough recognition going on for all the good things that go on at Clemente.

Then Kenebrew speaks.

KENEBREW: Students talking to students and getting them to think about their actions can help and maybe have them see the light and maybe act differently, as opposed to acting out violently. So we gotta come up with a way to do that, based on what I’m hearing from you.

The counsel’s idea of a peer mentorship program was a hit with administrators. Kenebrew wasn’t so hot on changing the discipline code, but he is receptive to other student recommendations, like a tip hotline and more positive reinforcement.

KENEBREW: The timeframe, I would say, is three to four months to communicate to them what this is about, what needs to happen. And some of this is already going on. But not enough of it is.

After the meeting, the Student Leadership Council stays to talk about how things went.

INSTRUCTOR: What’d you guys think? Yay? Nay?
STUDENT: I loved it.

The group talks about what went well, what didn’t work, and most importantly, what they’ll do next to assure that they’ve been heard.

If you are a student or teacher who would like to start a student-led council at your school, you can contact Mikva to find out how they did this at Roberto Clemente Community Academy.

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