When Iysha Jones and her team took over Doolittle Elementary School last year, it was a place where students had trouble talking about how they felt because they expected bad behavior to result in harsh discipline, like suspensions.
"The students had a lot of long lingering conflict with one another," she said. "Students knew how to react to their emotions, but could not articulate their emotions. It was a disconnect between adults and children, and children and children."
Activists in recent weeks have called out the practice of police being stationed in schools as they say it contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. But studies show harsh discipline practices, such as suspensions and expulsions, also disproportionately harm poor black and Latino students, and result in poor academic outcomes and eventual incarceration.
Jones said rather than a school-to-prison pipeline, her team at Doolittle Elementary wanted to create a school-to-society pipeline — a place where students would learn how to thrive academically and emotionally. Doolittle, in the Douglas neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, is one of the lowest-rated schools in the district.
So Jones was elated when she learned recently that she will be one of 15 principals who will be able to hire what is called a restorative justice coordinator next year. Restorative justice practices focus on preventing harms and addressing harms through conversations and peace circles, instead of punishing a student.
Doolittle's vision is that the coordinator at their school "teaches our students to self regulate without external entities, make appropriate decisions in crisis, participate in conflict resolution and develop coping strategies."
"A lot of our kids live in trauma," she said. "A lot of high crisis happens around our school community. There was no one to help our students develop those coping skills, articulate their needs and pick up best practices to deal with that trauma."
A strike demand
Jones is getting the position as part of the contract deal struck by the Chicago Teachers Union after its 11-day strike last fall. The union got the school district to agree to add 120 positions over four years to the neediest schools. These schools would then choose whether they wanted a counselor, librarian or restorative justice coordinator.
In this first year, half of the 30 new positions are restorative justice coordinators. Nine schools are getting counselors and six are getting librarians.
CTU President Jesse Sharkey said he thinks it's telling that teachers demanded the restorative justice positions and that, in this moment, principals are letting the school district know how much they need them.
"There is a focus on how much harm policing does, how much racial discrimination is tied up in that, how traumatic that we have uniformed, armed police deal with student behavior," he said. "I think we are seeing a lot of people say, 'Let's give restorative justice a chance to work.' "
For at least a decade, school district leaders and its policy have advocated the use of restorative justice. They also have frowned upon suspensions, expulsions and calling the police to deal with discipline. In fact, the numbers of students subjected to these have dropped precipitously.
M. Spencer Green/WBEZ
A Chicago police officer watches children board a school bus at on the first day of classes in Chicago in 2013. For at least a decade, Chicago Public Schools policy has frowned upon suspensions, expulsions and calling the police to deal with discipline.
M. Spencer Green/WBEZ
According to school district data, only about 30,000 suspensions were issued, down from more than 100,000 in the 2018-2019 school year. Police were notified less than 2,000 times in the same period; down from more than 5,000 police notifications.
Restorative justice: an unfunded mandate
But experts are dubious about how much the decline in suspensions and police notifications has to do with restorative practices. Ana Mercado, director of the restorative justice program for Alternatives Inc., a not-for-profit organization, said she suspects some schools are avoiding reporting. Also, some teachers and parents have complained that schools are not confronting and dealing with bullying and other acting out behaviors, which leaves some students vulnerable.
In fact, when restorative justice coaches from her organization go in and work with schools, she said they first need to get a handle on the real data.
Mercado said the support schools get in implementing restorative justice programs is spotty. Between Alternatives and the school district, there are about 12 coaches to work with 500-plus schools. In addition, some outside organizations provide restorative justice coordinators for schools they work with.
"It is an unfunded mandate," she said. "A lot of principals try to use restorative practices, but they do not have the resources to do it well."
Mercado said having police in schools is antithetical to a restorative approach.
"Police are the quintessential punitive response," she said. "The cop lens is what rule has been broken, who did it. Their only tool is the fear of punishment. It is hard to fathom a mindset where peace and order and safety equals to be kept in line through fear. "
Thus far, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has rejected calls to end the practice of having school-based police officers. She said on Wednesday that last year the school district gave local school councils the power to decide whether the police should be in schools. She believes the decision should stay in the hands of these elected councils.
And some schools are still suspending and bringing in the police with a lot of students, according to CPS data. Some 60% of suspensions and police notifications involve black students, though they are less than 40% of the students in the school district.
Doolittle contributed to these statistics. In 2018-2019, some 16% of students were given out-of-school suspensions. Though police are not stationed in elementary schools, Doolittle brought cops into situations four times, according to CPS data.
Jones said she is looking for the coordinator to not just lower the number of suspensions and other punitive measures, but to help the students in a more holistic way.
"I want to be very clear, he or she is not a gatekeeper in detention," she said. "This is not about having the bad kid sit in a room. It is not a dean or extra security. I want this person to engage children to help build capacity, to prepare our kids for society."
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.