Mariame Kaba

Samina Hadi-Tabassum was a 21-year-old first-year teacher fresh out of college when a student brought a knife into the classroom, she recalls. 

“He wasn’t there to kill anyone or hurt anyone, but according to the code of conduct, this was zero tolerance,” she said. “So we measured the knife and it was more than two inches, which was enough for him to get expelled. I never saw him again and I don’t know what happened to him.”

Hadi-Tabassum, now an education professor at Dominican University in River Forest who works extensively with Austin youth, said that the current methods of policing students, rather than guiding them, has only produced more cases of disappeared students and futures lost to the street—like the one she lost decades ago.

“There are two Chicago police officers in the majority of the city’s public schools,” she said. “How can we remediate our problems without having to rely on the police so much?” 

The professor is an advocate of what is called restorative justice, which she said is centered less on criminalizing and policing deviant behavior than on understanding it and refocusing it in a way that is empathetic and sensitive to cultural needs.

“It’s what we’ve been doing since the beginning of human history,” Hadi-Tabassum said. “I worked with a 14-year-old in Austin who broke into someone’s house and got caught by police. Instead of taking him to 26th and California, they took him back to his high school and convened a circle that included his parents, teachers—even the person he robbed. This is just a better way of meting out justice, because when kids get into that prison system, they can’t get out of it.”

Hadi-Tabassum said that the cultural and social divide that exists between many young teachers and the students they teach often works to exacerbate disciplinary problems. She added that the unconscious biases of young teachers often grease the school-to-prison pipeline.

“I’m working on a study right now of teacher biases and how they look at students of color,” she said. “I’ll show a picture of two white males wrestling on the floor and they’ll think this is just playful. Then they’ll see two black males and the same scenario turns violent.”

Hadi-Tabassum will be apart of a panel discussion at Dominican University’s Lund Auditorium (7900 W. Division St., River Forest) today, Jan. 28, at 5:30 p.m., on ways in which educators can incorporate these perceptions into their approach to student discipline. She touted the work of Chicago activist Mariame Kaba, the founding director of Project NIA (which means “with purpose” in Swahili), who will be the guest speaker.

Nia employs “the principles of participatory community justice which has been shown to meet the needs of victims, reduce recidivism, and improve the legal system,” according to a statement publicizing the event. 

“We talk about the police at Project NIA, mainly because the police are the gatekeepers of the state, and they’re also the representations that young people encounter, that they see on a regular basis, that are incredibly oppressive throughout, and that are unfair,” said Kaba during a November 2014 interview with South Side Weekly. “So they talk a lot about the police. And so in that case, Project NIA deals with these issues, it has to.”