Austin resident Lynn Morton just couldn’t understand how so many young kids could get suspended at her son’s Chicago elementary school.
She noticed a pattern – children acted up, got suspended and spent three days at home. But the children returned to the classroom with the same problems, and no one ever seemed to ask what led to the disruption in the first place.
So, Morton, 37, came up with a solution: a Peace Center.
In its third year, the Austin Peace Center has changed the atmosphere at Milton Brunson Math Science Specialty Elementary School, 932 N. Central, by helping youth address the root causes of their anger.
Instead of kicking kids out of the class, teachers are encouraged to send them to the center, where they will sit in a circle and discuss their behavior with other students, ultimately learning how to calmly handle conflict.
“Everything that’s said in the circle stays in the circle,” said Morton. “I am very very strict on that because I have to have an environment of safety.”
For her, the Peace Center is part of a larger mission: to save youth and help women of all ages achieve their full potential.
“I want to see a whole culture shift,” Morton said while sitting in a Brunson classroom.
She saw part of her mission realized in June, when the Chicago Board of Education approved a revised Student Code of Conduct. The new code emphasized age-appropriate discipline and restorative justice instead of suspensions
When Morton came up with the idea for the center, she approached the Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), a family advocacy group, and they drafted a proposal for state funding.
Morton initially trained 12 peacemakers – five or six are on hand each school day, she said.
Once students are referred, they get a personal peacemaker who meets with them and their families individually.
In addition, they participate in group discussions with up to seven students twice a week. Boys and girls come on different days.
Beyond Brunson, Morton helped develop recommendations for the revised school code as co-chair of POWER-PAC – Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew-Policy Action Council.
Kellie Magnuson, citywide organizer for COFI, said Morton has challenged the city to be proactive.
“I think Lynn and Nelly [Torres], and the rest of the POWER PAC-ers, have done a really great job at voicing those concerns,” Magnuson said. “They operate out of a sense of hope of what the city can be and should be.”
“Fearfully and wonderfully” made
Morton was born in Chicago’s Lawndale neighborhood and moved to Austin as a child.
She started her career as an accountant but left corporate America around the time she had her son, Stephan, now 12.
But it’s not surprising to Morton that she found her calling in education and community service. Growing up, she saw her grandmother open her home -and refrigerator-to neighborhood kids.
“Everybody on Gladys and Springfield [avenues] called my grandmother ‘Mama Lily,'” Morton recalled.
Her mother carried on the tradition as a classroom and lunchroom aide with CPS. She also sat on a Local School Council, and urged a then-pregnant Morton to attend the meetings.
Although Morton said she had a strong support network, being pregnant and unmarried made her sensitive to what single mothers went through.
She began crafting a program for women of every age to address self-esteem, goals, romantic relationships and body image. She refers to the curriculum as “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made.”
A licensed minister, Morton named the lesson after her favorite Bible verse, Psalm 139:14: “I will praise the Lord because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
She is now working on her next venture: creating a shelter for women to be tutored alongside their children.
The path to peace
Morton transferred her son out of Brunson in his third-grade year so he could benefit from the music-based curriculum at the Choir Academy. But she has no plans to leave the school herself.
“This is home,” she said firmly, “and I believe that you should take care of home.”
Success stories abound at the Peace Center, but Morton admitted feeling discouraged sometimes.
“There are days when I have to question ‘am I really helping?’ It seems like the problems are so big.”
She then paused to reflect on her grandmother, who used to sing the gospel song Have I given anything today?
She responded: “Yes, what I do matters.”
Last year, Assistant Principal Shenann Finley-Jones watched as Morton turned around the behavior of two girls who were “angry at the world” when they arrived at Brunson to repeat a grade.
The new disciplinary code, Jones noted, gives schools more creative solutions other than suspensions.
“Sometimes, we don’t want to go that route because we know what they’re going home to,” she said, explaining that suspended students often have no supervision and nothing productive to do while at home for the day.
But for those who never attend the Peace Center, they are able to benefit from Morton’s presence. She’s in the hallways, ready to give a hug to anyone who needs it.
“When you embrace them, you can feel a release,” Morton said. “They just walk up and walk into my arms and they go off and have a productive day.”