Parents hope the dramatic new Student Code of Conduct adopted by the Chicago Board of Education last Wednesday will help kids heal conflict and make them safer.

The new code, which Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan described as a “cultural change,” emphasizes age-appropriate discipline and restorative justice.

“It will give students and teachers an alternative to just saying ‘You hit me, I’m going to hit you back,’ because restorative justice is all about [repairing] the harm ,” said Lynn Morton, co-chair of Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew-Policy Action Council. The council worked with the board to revise the code.

Parents in the council came before the board four years ago to express concern about the number of elementary school suspensions. They then held forums and visited schools in Minnesota that use restorative justice.

Last year, they successfully pushed to remove “zero-tolerance” language from the Code of Conduct. Wednesday they campaigned for passage of the new code that they consider a victory for better approaches to school discipline.

Nelly Torres, co-chair of POWER-PAC and the mother of three Von Humboldt Elementary School students, said restorative justice teaches communication and helps students learn strategies to heal rather than let emotions bubble over.

As POWER-PAC celebrated, so did the board. Preliminary results show 64 percent of Chicago Public Schools students met or exceeded state standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, up from 61 percent in 2006.

The board also recognized about 100 retirees, including dozens of principals, Donald Pittman, chief of the office of high schools and high school programs, and Walter Payton College Prep’s math team, which won its fourth consecutive state championship this year.

After the principals paraded out, Ald. Isaac Carothers (29th) said his Austin neighborhood -the largest community area in Chicago- deserved high-quality high schools. Austin Community Academy High School officially closed this year and has one small school currently on campus, one opening up in the fall, and another slated to open in 2008.

Board president Rufus Williams assured Carothers that he was looking at the issue but said the city needs more education money from the state. That did little to placate Virgil Crawford of the Westside Health Authority.

“We must have a new high school in Austin now, and not just some little itty bitty something to appease,” he said. “We refuse to watch our children go to the streets while other neighborhoods have schools.”

The meeting couldn’t escape the serious realities on the streets that confront Chicago school students.

Williams acknowledged the death of 13-year-old Schanna Gayden who was shot in gang crossfire Monday while on a Northwest Side playground.

Community resident Adele Barksdale also returned to the violence issue as she advocated for parental involvement. “Chicago;” she said, “we are really hurting. Our children are really hurting.”

What is Restorative Justice?

Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behavior. It is best accomplished through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders.