Justice:Jesus 'Chuy' Garcia addresses an auditorium of students at North Lawndale College Prop. Garcia expressed support for restorative justice programs in CPS schools. (La Risa Lynch/Contributor)

Mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia supports increasing restorative justice programing within Chicago Public Schools as a way to “create good healthy communities.”

Current discipline policies, he said, fuel the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affects minority youths. Garcia added, whether the school-to-prison pipeline is intentional or not, “it is structural and we need to stop it. We need to break it.”

“Unless we are able to do those things, we continue with discipline policies that profile, that target, that expel and only exacerbate conditions of inequality in our communities…,” Garcia said. 

Garcia appeared earlier this month at a film screening and panel discussion focused on the student-produced documentary “Restoring Justice – Chicago’s School to Prison Pipeline.” The screening was shown to a packed auditorium at North Lawndale College Prep High school, 1313 S. Sacramento Ave. Event organizers invited both mayoral candidates to speak.

The documentary, done by students from Free Spirit Media, examines school policies that excessively punish students for minor infractions, which often result in suspensions and the criminalization of youth. It also examines the grassroots movement to have school leadership adopt restorative justice practices.

According to a February 2014 CPS report on suspensions and expulsions, 69,845 students received out-of-school suspensions district wide for the 2012-2013 school year. While black students comprise 41 percent of CPS student population, they account for 75 percent of all suspensions. 

Since 2012, CPS has begun retooling policies to limit out-of-schools suspensions by developing restorative justice approaches that keep students in schools. As a result, CPS has seen a 36 percent drop in high school suspensions since the 2010-2011 school year.

CPS has made strides to reduce suspension through restorative justice programs, but panelist Quabeeny Daniels questioned the militarized atmosphere in some of CPS schools. Some schools have in-school police officers and a report by Project Nia found that in 2010, 20 percent of all juvenile arrests in Chicago occurred on school property.

“When I was in school I felt very militarized,” the Gage Park High School graduate said. “I felt like we had to stand up straight, walk in a line, put our fingers over our mouths so we don’t say anything, even at lunch. I feel like that pushes us out of school more. A lot of my friends have not returned to school after they have been expelled or suspended.”

Steinmetz High School senior Dalia Mena agreed. She said metal detectors in schools add to the atmosphere. She recalled a time when she had a Snapple bottle in her backpack and had to report to the in-school police department to have her bag search “because I had a glass bottle.”

 “For me I feel like I am in a prison,” said Mena, a youth leader with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE). “Why do you have to check through my things? That’s not right.”

 Students, she added, need to be given more credit that they are not always doing something wrong.

CPS is making investment around restorative justice training said Karen VanAusdal, CPS’s office of social and emotional learning director. That, she said, includes teaching students social and emotional skills “so when they are in a peer jury or a peace circle they have the capacity to listen to one another and to empathize,” to be effective restorative justice practitioners.

Social activist Mariame Kaba noted CPS use of restorative justice practices came after years of grassroots advocacy to rid language around “zero tolerance” policies. But the concern now is the disproportionate number of Black students still affected by suspensions, she said.

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