As a child, DeMarcus Thompson spent most of his time inside his house. His mom worried about the shootings that regularly erupted on his block and didn’t want to risk letting him play outside.
Now, as a Peace Warrior at North Lawndale College Prep, the 17-year-old’s mission is to stop fights at his school before they escalate and contribute to the violence beyond the school walls.
The Peace Warriors program, a central part of the West Side charter school’s efforts to confront gun violence by centering students’ needs, trains students to mediate conflicts, support grieving classmates and bring peace and happiness to school by greeting peers at the front door and leaving celebratory birthday notes on lockers.
“Our biggest goal is to end violence — any and everywhere and to do that — we have to end violence inside of ourselves first because violence starts internally with the thought,” said DeMarcus. “In order to get to our goal, we have to work together.”
City and school leaders have long wrestled with Chicago’s pervasive gun violence. Amid a spate of shootings last fall, CEO Pedro Martinez called on city agencies, community groups, and neighbors to work together to combat violence and support students.
In recent shootings, district leaders have dispatched crisis counselors for a few days to support students and staff in mourning, but sustained mental health support and wraparound services are needed beyond the classroom
During the first month of the new school year, nearly four dozen school-age children were wounded across the city in shootings between Aug. 22 and Sept. 16, according to data obtained from Chicago Police Department through a records request.
Dozens more have been wounded and 15 have been killed since, according to the Sun-Times.
The Peace Warriors program at North Lawndale College Prep is an attempt to break that cycle by turning students into “ambassadors of peace,” said Gerald Smith, a restorative justice specialist and supervisor of the program at the school.
Many students are “committed to being a solution to a serious problem,” Smith said, because they have personally experienced gun violence.
In mid-October, about three dozen students sat shoulder-to-shoulder with teachers in a circle inside a conference room at North Lawndale College Prep’s Collins campus and talked about losing brothers, cousins, friends, and neighbors.
They described dealing with the aftermath of a loved one wounded by gunfire, and the still-fresh mental and emotional scars of violence.
“I feel like I see violence a lot in my life,” one student said. ”I feel like it’s an ongoing thing, coming and coming, faster, and faster, and faster. I feel it on my back. I hate it.”
“People were coming down Christiana and people were shooting,” another student said, recalling a memory of trying to walk home from school when someone started shooting. “We had to run back into the building. We had to hide in the cafeteria.”
“We heard someone call him outside and all of a sudden we heard 30 shots,” a third student said of a neighbor. “We looked out the front window and this man is dead. He got shot in his head at least three times.”
“That was the second time I saw a dead body,” the student added.
The conversations were part of a two-day Peace Warriors training session, which included team-building exercises and small breakout sessions and group discussions where students learned about Martin Luther King Jr.’s six principles of nonviolence.
Founded in 2009, the Peace Warriors program was created following the charter school expansion into two campuses. A substantial increase in fights prompted school leaders to implement a program to train students in King’s teachings, Smith said.
“Violence is a tragedy for everybody, but I think it’s much more tragic for students,” Smith said. “Peace Warriors is the most valid alternative to their current life experiences.”
A great deal of the healing work comes from the Peace Warriors, school leaders said.
Students are the eyes and ears of the group, said Kyera Bradley, principal at the charter’s Christiana Campus.
They work to de-escalate problems while also supporting peers through condolences runs, when a Peace Warrior tries to bolster someone who has lost a loved one or is experiencing a challenging time by pulling them aside to chat or just for a hug. They’ve also held training at middle schools, high schools, and in communities that have experienced gun violence.
“Their work has been game-changing,” Bradley said.
During a recent training with aspiring Peace Warriors, DeMarcus helped guide a breakout group during a discussion of some of King’s principles. Part of the work is connecting with peers and helping them feel a part of a group that shares a collective goal, he said.
“We are trying to stop the violence in our schools and in our community,” DeMarcus said. “They feel the same way about that. It’s important to make that change.”
Fellow Peace Warriors interject love and kindness by greeting peers at the door in the morning, reaching out to struggling classmates, and acting as ambassadors of peace by teaching others about nonviolence, said DeMarcus, who is a senior. The goal is to get students into peace circles before conflicts spiral out of control.
But it hasn’t been without its challenges.
“Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s easy,” he said. “What keeps me going is how I’m making a change inside of my school even if it might not be immediate.”
Among the principles Peace Warriors learn are: ”nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people,” “the beloved community is the framework for the future,” “attack forces of evil, not persons doing evil,” and “accept suffering without retaliation for the sake of cause to achieve the goal.”
“The training and the program way to create a solution that involved the entire student body — staff, students, and our families alike,” Smith said. “It’s literally a life that they’re choosing because it is either a life and death issue for them and their friends.”
In reflecting on more than a decade of work advising the group, Smith continues to be hopeful as more students commit to changing their school and broader neighborhoods.
“Young people have been seen as the scourge, but to see them as the solution — it’s inspiring, it’s hope-building,” Smith said.
The Peace Warriors program is not the only way the North Lawndale schools are working to support students grappling with the trauma of gun violence. In recent years, the charter has expanded wraparound services to include a first-year experience coordinator, housing for students experiencing homelessness, and programs such as drama therapy and student support groups.
Principal Bradley said the charter school has developed community partnerships with the mission of creating a welcoming and safe learning environment for students. Most recently, the school started working with Books over Balls, a group that supports students through sports and mentoring, she said.
Students dealing with grief from the loss of peers, family, or people from their neighborhoods are looking for stability, Bradley said.
“My goal is to ensure that everybody in this building has a sense of belonging, has a sense of connection,” Bradley said. “I want them to know we are going to do leaps and bounds and go over and beyond to ensure that they’re safe. They’re loved. They’re cared for. They’re heard.”
That means checking in with new students and connecting them with resources and programs so they don’t fall through the cracks, said Kay Griffin, manager of first-year experience at the Christiana campus.
The position, created this year, aims to help the charter’s retention efforts by building relationships with students and ensuring that “new scholars feel the same support that returning scholars feel,” Griffin said.
She meets one-on-one with new students to discuss behavior, attendance, and grade reports, connects them with resources and programs available to them, hosts monthly group meetings with new scholars, and builds relationships with parents.
“The first year at a new school is critical,” Griffin said. “We want to make sure that the relationships they are building are solid.”
Griffin, who has worked at the school for a decade, understands how vital these supports are for both students and parents. In 2016, she lost her fiance to gun violence just as her son was transitioning from eighth grade into the charter school. The loss hit Griffin and her son hard, who she described as being in a “dark place.”
She recalls the charter school’s staff being intentional with their support, “pouring into him” through a difficult time.
“We can’t afford to fail with these kids,” Griffin said. “We want them to be successful every step of the way.”