According to the Chicago Tribune, school-related violence has claimed the lives of 22 district students so far this school year.
These statistics have led some to call for harsher gun penalties, and longer suspensions and expulsions of juveniles exhibiting disruptive behavior in schools. However, others, like Lynn Morton, founder and coordinator of the Austin Peace Center, have called for more “restorative justice” methods to overcome school violence.
On March 26, Morton testified before state legislators at the State House Budget Hearing, which took place at Bethel New Life, 5130 W. Jackson Blvd. She spoke in support of federal funding for the Peace Center, which Morton started three years ago at its present location, Milton Brunson Math Science Specialty Elementary School, 932 N. Central. The center was created to help youth deal with anger issues. It’s funding was denied by the state this school year.
“I wanted the lawmakers to know how important it is to invest in organizations like the Peace Center because it does have an impact on children’s’ behavior,” Morton said.
She added that with the recent rash of violent attacks in public schools, funding needs to go toward preventative methods as opposed to simply punishing perpetrators after their acts.
“The work we do at the Austin Peace Center reaches students as early as elementary school, and teaches them alternative resolutions to conflicts so that they do not feel as though they need to engage in that type of behavior,” Morton said.
In the Peace Center’s first two semesters, it was funded by the Cook County States Attorney’s Office with a $20,000 per-year grant. That allowed volunteers to work with up to 60 students, four times a week. But the Peace Center was one of the community-based programs, along with CeaseFire and others on the West Side, that were denied further state funding following Gov. Blagojevich’s budget veto in January of last year.
“I think it was the governor’s way of removing ‘the pork’ from the budget, although, I believe the decision was made without really looking at what the program was accomplishing,” said Morton.
State Rep. Annazette Collins (10th), State Rep. LaShawn Ford (8th) and State Rep. Deborah Graham (78) were among those at hand for the event. According to Morton, Graham has been especially supportive of her fight to secure funding for the program.
“[Representative Graham] said she definitely wants to look into re-instating federal funding of the program by the start of the next school year,” she said.
Laurella Scaggs, a volunteer with the Peace Center, is also optimistic that federal funding will be restored next year.
“I think [Representative Graham] is supportive enough of our program to see that funding will be made available next year, especially with all the talk about the need for resolutions to stemming the tide of school violence,” said Scaggs. In the meantime, the program has looked for alternative funding. This semester, the program received a $3,000 donation from the United Methodist Church. This semester, the center has worked with about 20 students, twice a week. The Peace Center, founded in 2005, allows teachers, parents and community residents to address behavioral issues with troubled students.
Adults talk with students about their personal problems and engage in “peace circles,” where students talk out their problems with volunteers. Morton explained that they encouraged students to look for peaceful resolutions to conflicts.