How Peace Rooms in High Schools are Helping to Create a Culture of Healing Beyond School Walls and Into Communities

by Ted Christians, Chief Executive Officer, Umoja Student Development Corporation
Umoja Student Development Corporation

Umoja has identified high schools as critical arenas for preventing, interrupting, and addressing the issue of youth violence, and their restorative justice program is helping to create a positive culture of healing.

Chicago is on pace for the most violent year since 2008 with young people of color disproportionately impacted. Last year, according to the Chicago Tribune, 96% of homicide victims were Black or Hispanic. It’s well documented that young people exposed to violence suffer lasting physical, mental, and emotional consequences. Our organization, the Umoja Student Development Corporation, believes that like other public health issues, violence can be impacted by behavioral changes. With more than 30% of Chicago Public School students not graduating with a high school diploma, Umoja understands high schools are critical arenas for preventing, interrupting, and addressing this issue. And the current response in schools is just not working.

One of every four African-American public school students in Illinois was suspended at least once during the 2009/10 school year – the highest rate in the country according to the Center for Civil Rights Remedies. The link between suspensions and further violence is also clear, as youth who drop out of high school – many of whom have been on a path of suspensions – are more than eight times as likely to be incarcerated as those who graduate (soure: Advancement Project, 2010).

Umoja’s response to what’s happening is building and expanding our Restorative Justice program. This effort aims to create a school culture of restoration and healing where students take responsibility for their actions, solve conflicts, heal themselves and their community, and graduate from high school equipped with the skills to not only prevent violence and solve conflicts, but also to take those life skills with them as they transition to college and career.

We do this through Peace Rooms in high schools. On average, our Peace Room partner schools have seen a 49% reduction in suspensions. We have also trained hundreds of school personnel across the city of Chicago to integrate restorative practices into their daily work and systems within their schools. For Umoja, restorative justice not only allows for a culturally relevant and authentic community response to decreasing violence and conflict, but its impact stretches far beyond through its focus on restoring both perpetrator and victim to each other and to the school community. We strongly believe that if we can reduce suspensions and disciplinary infractions related to conflicts and violence through our program, then we can keep students in school where we’ll have an opportunity to teach skills, influence positive choices, and prevent issues that can otherwise quickly become a vicious cycle of harm and retaliation. Here’s just a sample of what some of our partners have shared about Umoja:

“Instead of just getting suspended or getting punished, we work to figure out why this conflict is happening, which keeps students from getting in the same sort of issues. When students work out their issues, they don’t get in fights, they don’t get suspended, and they don’t miss school.” – an Umoja Peace Room participant
“I think restorative justice makes learning so much more possible. It gives kids the sense that they are cared for and supported in their environment.” – Principal at an Umoja partner school
“The work that Umoja does in supporting teachers and counselors is really intentional in giving very specific strategies to address all students. It’s really helpful to have people at the table to help you figure out things that you may not necessarily understand to be a reality for some students.” – Principal at an Umoja partner school

The Field Foundation has been a key supporter since our earliest days when we were only in one high school on the West side. Believing in our unique model of serving all students with staff embedded in the school, the Field allowed Umoja to make an impact on a tremendously marginalized high school and to expand to more high schools throughout Chicago. Since our first Field Foundation grant, we have expanded our reach to 13 Chicago high schools and have become a leader in translating restorative justice practices and principles into the systems and structures of high schools across the city.

I have truly enjoyed getting to know our partner Mark Murray [Program Director], and I’ve always appreciated his understanding of and commitment to the work that is happening on the ground. He understand the challenges and is committed to the schools that need Umoja’s partnership the most. When Mark visits with us, his questions are always appreciated, respectful, and clearly aimed at getting to know what’s happening across the city.

Without the support of believers and investors like the Field Foundation, Umoja’s growth simply would not have been possible. In 2017, we anticipate serving more than 2,000 students through our restorative justice Peace Room model. We will expand from having one room to eight rooms across Chicago. And our professional development offerings will expand to another 25 CPS schools and even into Madison, Wisconsin.

Chicago has an absolutely incredible resource in its philanthropic community. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always get recognized to the degree that it should. The Field Foundation exemplifies the best of what that can look like in so many ways. In my opinion, Chicago simply could not function as a city without the work of the Field and other philanthropic organizations that see the inequities and disparities in our city from both a justice lens and an investment that is in our collective interest.

It is a dire situation for the highest need high schools in Chicago right now. Over the 2015-16 school year, Umoja’s school partners experienced budget cuts totaling more than $4.2 million. Additionally, funding cuts are taking a disproportionate toll on the schools that are most marginalized and taking a devastating toll on those who are most vulnerable – the students themselves. Our Principal partners, many of whom have special needs populations over 30%, are being forced to decide between core academic and support staff positions. Even as the need for restorative justice, social-emotional, and postsecondary supports increases, schools are far less positioned to allocate resources and school staff internally and are left grasping for free alternatives at substantially less dosage and quality. At the end of the day, it is the students who most suffer. We feel that investing in Umoja is a way to get resources directly to those in most need.

Umoja is positioned to continue to grow our impact and influence, and we’re looking forward to translating our restorative justice model to additional high-need schools and communities. It is with the Field Foundation’s partnership that we have been able to capture our learnings, codify our methods, and position to scale to additional schools throughout the city.

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© 2016 Field Foundation
All photos by Olga Lopez