A holistic approach

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Clemente High School

Catalyst file photo/Joe Gallo

Clemente High School

Commander Anthony Carothers, a veteran cop with a brisk manner, strides into a conference room at 7th District police headquarters in Englewood, where he and several of his officers are slated to meet with principals from some of the neighborhood’s three dozen schools.

“My whole goal is to get ahead of things,” Carothers says to the group. “If you have events in the evening, we need to know about them so we can have the manpower out there.”

“We want to get to the day when we don’t need any officers in the schools,” he continues. “But today is not that day. Today, we want to curtail as much of the violence as we can.”

During the meeting, principals hear a presentation on restorative justice and how it can head off conflict in schools; a pitch for parent patrols to monitor students on the way to and from school; tips for ensuring student safety on public transit—63rd Street cuts through Englewood and hundreds of students travel its major bus route; and information about a police team that debriefs students after a shooting to find what sparked it and how it could be related to gang rivalries.

Finally, one officer describes a program that brings inmates to talk with small groups of students about the harsh reality of prison life. “It’s trying to de-glamorize what [students] think is so cool,” says Officer Maudessie Jointer. “To some of them, prison is a badge of honor. It’s the new college.”

To someone unfamiliar with the challenges some schools face, that statement might sound absurd. But this is Englewood, one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, and several in the audience nod in agreement.

The meeting is emblematic of the ties that have been forged between the police and schools, both of which are on the frontlines in seeking to curb youth violence.

Those ties have, arguably, become tighter under outgoing CEO Ron Huberman. School violence was on the rise when Huberman was appointed: According to Catalyst Chicago’s analysis of 2008-2009 data, high schools experienced a 20 percent jump in the most serious violations of the student discipline code.

Huberman’s administration also had to contend with the fallout from student shootings, although none of them took place inside schools. Then, nine months into the job, the beating death of Fenger High student Derrion Albert put school-related violence on the front burner.

In response, Huberman rolled out a “culture of calm” plan for the most troubled high schools. (The plan was first pegged at $60 million but has since been cut to about $50 million.) And last January, a new Student Safety Center opened at central office, staffed 24/7 to monitor surveillance cameras and serve as a clearinghouse of information between police and schools.

“Commanders call here if they have a problem, and we can get information out to principals,” says Michael Shields, director of the Office of Safety and Security and a former police commander. “A small fight in school can escalate into something big [outside].”

Strengthening cooperation between police and schools is a necessary step. But the next mayor and schools chief must tip the balance toward a more holistic approach to curbing violence.

Part of Huberman’s “culture of calm” program included steps in that direction, with mentoring for youth deemed at-risk of being involved in shootings and, at the suggestion of students from the non-profit Mikva Challenge, more training for security guards on how to interact with students in a less punitive manner.

Huberman reported recently that “culture of calm” schools have had fewer discipline code violations and better attendance and grades. But statistics to verify that claim have yet to be released: Catalyst has yet to receive a response to a Freedom of Information Act request for school-by-school data from last year on code violations.

Meanwhile, such data has never been made readily available to parents, something Shields acknowledges that the district needs to “think about.”

Still, there’s anecdotal evidence in favor of ‘culture of calm.’ Shawnta Robinson, a student at Julian High School and a member of Mikva’s youth safety council, has noticed an improvement. “There’s fewer fights, and we used to have a lot of them,” she says. “Honestly, some students say it’s boring, but it’s just calm. Everyone’s just living their lives.”

Community groups want to take prevention a step further and are pushing the district for more training in proven restorative justice strategies such as peace circles and peer juries. One school that adopted the concept, Dyett High in Washington Park, cut the number of school arrests to six from 60 in one year.

“The [discipline] code doesn’t say ‘zero tolerance’ anymore, but the culture is still very much in effect,” says Karen Morton of POWER-PAC, the parent arm of the grassroots group Community Organizing and Family Issues.

One of Englewood’s schools, Harper High, has already embraced the concept. Marcus Prewitt, a recently hired counselor and college coach whose background is in juvenile justice, says these strategies work even with tough kids. Most fights, he says, stem from misunderstandings that can be resolved if adults have the right training and build relationships with students.

Prewitt recalls one young man who initially resisted mediation, dismissing Prewitt’s talk as “all that corporate stuff.”

In response, Prewitt calmly told the young man that he understood his position and his need to maintain “street cred”—but wanted to teach him how to tailor his demeanor to the setting and situation at hand. “What I would like you to learn is how to go downtown as well as in the street,” Prewitt told him.

The young man calmed down, thought for a moment, then nodded in agreement and told Prewitt, “I like what you’re saying.” 

Carothers says police reports from Harper, one of the district’s turnaround schools, have decreased over the past year. And Rashaun Calhoun, dean of students at Harper, says students have begun to seek out staff to alert them to potential fights, with the obvious goal of getting adults to step in and stop them ahead of time.

“They’ll come to you and say, ‘This is what’s going to happen. I’m just letting you know,’ ” Calhoun says. “They don’t want to get caught up in the next shooting.”

Prevention will depend largely on a change in adult attitudes. For one, “parents need to parent,” Carothers notes. As for restorative justice, “the reality is, some people won’t buy into it,” Shields says. “Some people don’t want to deal with bad kids.