Chicago’s international reputation for its violent youth population was sealed when, last fall, 16-year-old Southsider Derrion Albert was repeatedly struck with a board, punched, and kicked until death a few blocks away from his high school, in an incident caught on video that stunned the world, and possibly cost the city the 2016 Olympic bid. It wasn’t news to local youth, though: we all know violence begets violence. So few weeks ago, a group of youth demanded – and won – the ability to stem the rising tide of rage throughout the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) with the installation of a transparent grievance process, to be overseen by students.
“School is like your second home, in a way, because you spend most of your life there, year after year. It should be a safe environment,” said Eric Amaya, currently a junior at Kelly High School and a member of the organization Gender JUST. “You shouldn’t have to deal with people talking crap about you, or teachers who have no respect for you.”
Gender JUST fights for racial, economic, and gender justice with a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, and multi-generational group of young people with widely divergent gender and sexual identities. The grassroots effort behind the grievance process was the youth-led Safe and Affirming Education Campaign, a group of LGBTQA students of color, who are supported by parents, teachers, and allies working together to fight oppression and violence in the CPS system.
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Amaya, a Southside resident himself, joined the group a little over a year ago, after he put his name on their list at an event the group was at “just for the hell of it – just to get them away from me.” When they called a few days later, they asked him to come to a meeting. At first he refused, but then he was struck with something: “The idea that I could change something in this world,” he says. “I thought, I should just do this.”
At the meeting, the teen says, “I cried like a baby. I realized I was helping people who don’t have the ability to speak. Some kids are in the closet, and some kids aren’t able to speak out against any injustice. I cried like a fool.”
So for the last year, he’s been leading Gender JUST in petitioning CPS to install a grievance process whereby youth can submit concerns via web, phone, or paper about incidents of violence, harassment, discrimination, oppression, or any other act that makes students feel unsafe in their schools.
And on the evening of June 8, Gender JUST and CPS agreed to a plan that will root the process in the principles of restorative justice. Restorative justice emphasizes repairing harm caused or revealed by violence through cooperative processes that include all stakeholders. As Amaya explains, “It attacks the problem rather than just leave it be, because if you don’t look at the situation, then you’re just – it’s just gonna be hot mess. It’s going to keep expanding and keep growing. That’s what’s unique about this grievance process.”
What’s unique about the CPS agreement – or, as Amaya says, “the cool thing about it” – is that the new grievance process will be driven by students and include a student oversight committee.
“Kids will have a job looking over a district,” Amaya says.
It’s a victory for youth activists working to end gender-based discrimination and violence among all students. “I see fights outside the school, police arresting some kids, gangbangers across the street,” Amaya says. Violence is less visible, and more emotional at times, too. “A few days ago, I was in this office with a teacher, and I guess some student was in the hall, upset about something. This other guy came up and said, ‘There’s this kid crying outside like a fag.’ I was like, Oh my god. The teacher made him apologize,” he said.
Under the new grievance process, things will change. “It’s more out in the open,” Amaya explains. Students fill out a report in the case of a violent or oppressive incident in school, with an option of anonymity, online, over the phone, or in person. Reports are forwarded to the local Anti-Violence Action Committee, a group of five to ten students in each of CPS’ 24 instructional areas, who are selected through an application process that considers a student’s activity in the community and/or school, a student’s tolerance and respect for all groups, a student’s competence and reliability, and a student’s passion for social justice. Committees are also assigned an investigator from the Equal Opportunity Compliance Office. Committee members receive training in restorative justice, as well as on the histories and experiences of all the populations of students within CPS, and make recommendations for actions on each report. Each report is graded based on the immediate need each incident might demand, and the entire process is overseen by representatives from Chicago community-based organizations working on relevant issues outside of the school system.
“The thing that’s different about this, is that the teacher will get repercussions for what they do. For instance, if a teacher calls a kid a fag, they would have to go to a gay groups meeting, or some kind of enrichment program. So they would learn about what they’re doing instead of just being fired. To have them learn something based on what they said or did – it makes them embarrassed for what they did,” the young activist allows himself a little laugh here, but explains.
“It really allows them to understand the impact.”
Over the next year, CPS and Gender JUST will be fine-tuning the grievance process. It will be announced at an upcoming Board of Education meeting and implemented in Fall of 2011.
Amaya believes it could impact youth violence in Chicago. “If I knew that I had such a powerful right at school, I know that I would personally tone it down a bit. Not only work things out in classes, but in other areas too,” he says.
“It seems like such a small thing,” he says of the policy change he’s worked toward over the last year, “but it really has big effects.”