Thursday, April 12, 2012

Research Brief #2 - Increasing Safety Through Restorative Justice: Making Schools Safer for Girls and LGBTQ Students of Color in Chicago’s Public Schools

April 2012

From the relentless bullying of Phoebe Prince at her school in North Hadley, Massachusetts, which resulted in her suicide, to the murder of Derrion Albert near Chicago’s Fenger High school, stories of youth violence draw the public’s attention to the important matter of school safety. But how exactly are we conceptualizing the problem of violence? Which students are at risk for being harassed and bullied? What are the safety concerns for girls and LGBTQ students of color? Are punishing perpetrators and increasing the policing of schools the best directions for Chicago Public Schools (CPS)? What role can restorative justice strategies play in ending school violence and fostering safer CPS schools?

School violence includes both the extreme acts that capture the media’s attention as well as the everyday, chronic harassment that often flies under the radar of school disciplinary policies and security measures, undetected by safety officers and surveillance cameras. Events involving extremely dangerous violence are rare, and rates of gun violence on school grounds have actually declined in recent years in the U.S. More widespread is the chronic harassment of peers, which has serious negative implications for both academic achievement and physical and emotional health. Among the most common student behaviors that threaten the safety of others are bullying, physical intimidation, and harassment. These safety threats are particularly problematic regarding gender and sexuality. Hill and Kearl report that 48% of the middle and high school students they surveyed had experienced some form of sexual harassment, including physical and cyber- harassment, and negative comments related to students’ perceived sexual identity.

Chicago is no different. The Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) has argued that “safety is an urgent issue at both the elementary and high school levels for both students and teachers in Chicago schools.”4 In their recent survey of student and teacher perceptions of school safety in CPS, they found that students welcomed efforts by teachers and security staff to make their schools safer, but did not believe that harsh discipline increased their safety. Furthermore, students reported concerns about safety (or lack thereof ) not only in classrooms, but also in hallways, the cafeteria, and outside of school buildings.

Too often, schools respond to violence with punishment, including schools here in Chicago. CPS has one of the highest suspension rates in the nation. Suspension and expulsion rates have declined overall in the last 10 years, but there is a “discipline gap” in which CPS students of color experience a far higher rate of suspension, and expulsion from school. While African American males comprise 25% of CPS students, for example, they represent 45% of the students suspended from school and are the students who are most likely to drop out.

Multiple studies confirm that student misbehavior that impacts school safety does not vary significantly by student ethnicity or race. In other words, student misbehavior is consistent across ethnic and racial groups. However, there is consistent and staggering evidence of disproportionate disciplinary referrals and sanctions. African American youth, and to a somewhat lesser extent, Latino/a and Native American youth, experience disproportionate amounts of school disciplinary actions. In the 2009–2010 school year 44,567 of CPS’s approximately 410,000 students were suspended. Suspensions continue unabated in CPS despite research that shows the negative impact on students’ school performance and school safety. Our “solutions” are not only missing the problem, but also are exacerbating other problems.

The main purposes of this research brief are to highlight the often overlooked problem of gender and sexual harassment for girls and LGBTQ youth of color, and to recommend that harsh school discipline procedures for students involved in incidences of harassment and bullying be replaced by restorative justice strategies that heal, rather than harm. This research brief synthesizes current research to offer a more complex understanding of the problem of school violence and presents an alternative framework for the solution of making schools safer through restorative justice practices, particularly for girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning (LGBTQ) students of color. Because fewer than 10% of CPS students are white, when referring to girls and LGBTQ youth in CPS, this brief necessarily centers its analysis on girls and LGBTQ students who are predominantly African American and/or Latino/a.

This briefing paper was prepared by William Ayers, Leslie Rebecca Bloom, Kevin Kumashiro, Crystal Laura, Chris Mack, Erica Meiners, Kate Phillippo, Amira Proweller, and Gerri Spinella.