Clemente Principal Leonard Kenebrew Credit: photo by Joe Gallo

Clemente High junior Reginald Reese has learned an invaluable lesson that’s not part of the curriculum: how to avoid fights and other trouble that he says occur nearly every day at school.

For a while, Reese admits, he hung out with gang members and almost became part of the problem at the West Town school, which has one of the highest rates of school violence in the district. But Reese says he got bored, decided to do something constructive with his life and joined a church-based group called Walk By Faith Mission.

Still, Reese knows he must walk a fine line to avoid alienating rival gang members at his school. “I am cool with both sides, so no one bothers me,” he says.

Across town, junior Doug Thurman at Sullivan High doesn’t face the same ever-present level of simmering tension as Reese, since Sullivan has one of the lower rates of violence in the district. But Thurman says trouble nevertheless brews on an ongoing basis, especially if gangs are feuding, and he does everything he can to avoid run-ins, staying away from the fray and never leaving school alone. Many students at various schools say walking home or to the bus stop is the most dangerous part of their day.

Last year, Thurman says the school climate improved when math teachers took it upon themselves to stand in the halls after the bell rang and sweep them of students.

“It is good that the violence has decreased,” says Thurman, a student in the honors medical program at Sullivan.

Other students report a host of different ways they avoid trouble. Some teens leave school early when rumors surface of an impending after-school brawl; some keep to themselves; others simply dread going to school.

While Chicago’s media spotlight has focused on the killings of students outside schools, less attention has been focused on what happens inside schools. On one hand, the climate at many schools is improving: School violence fell 10 percent last year across the city.

“That’s a double-digit decline,” CEO Arne Duncan says. “It is going in the direction we want it to be.”

But Catalyst Chicago’s analysis of reports of violence inside schools last year found that, despite the overall decline, almost a third of schools—153 of 585—have experienced a 20 percent increase or more in the rate of serious fights, gang activity and other violence. Most are high schools, but some elementary schools are also experiencing problems. (See story.) As a result, many students must walk a fine line to avoid potential clashes, teachers are reluctant to work in rougher schools and education is jeopardized by the distractions of conflict and tension.

“We can get to nothing else until we get to safety,” says Julian High Principal Therese Johnson.

Comparing school violence in Chicago to other large districts is virtually impossible because districts and states simply don’t report violent incidents accurately, says Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center.

“Our view is that what gets reported is just the tip of the iceberg,” he says, echoing others who say lax reporting is a problem. The federal No Child Left Behind Act is supposed to provide more transparency regarding school safety, but so far, has fallen short of that goal in Illinois. (See stories.)

Even one instance of fighting or other violence can shade the way students perceive a school, Stephens adds. “A single incident of bullying is too many. A single homicide is one too many.”

Safety on the surface?

School quality is intricately intertwined with the ability to maintain a calm climate that is conducive to learning, Duncan emphasizes. To that end, CPS has focused on providing schools with security personnel and equipment, to the tune of about $54 million each year. Parents want to see that investment, says Andres Durbak, director of the Office of Safety and Security.

In addition, some of the toughest schools now have dynamic principals charged with improving the climate, Duncan adds. “They will be visible and will work hard to make sure that students are engaged and feel as though the staff cares about them.”

But students, education advocates and parents worry that the district is creating a superficial level of safety by putting cameras in the hallways, police officers at the doors and kicking out troublemakers. They have pushed the district to embrace deeper reforms that help young people deal with their anger, see the error of their ways and repair the hurt caused by violence. The district is beginning to take steps in that direction.

“They have to look at what ticks kids off and what aggravates them,” says Nelida Torres, a parent member of POWER-PAC, an advocacy group brought together by the grassroots group Community Organizing and Family Issues. “They have to look inside the students, instead of just at the surface.”

Schools in tough neighborhoods need to be especially cognizant of securing the building and grounds and having a system to check visitors’ IDs, says Stephens. But districts also need to provide information for principals and school staff about the best ways to deal with specific problem behaviors, and should consider instituting alternatives such as peer juries and student panels to provide recommendations about school safety.

Rick Perrotte, coordinator of safety and security for the Chicago Teachers Union, says CPS has been aggressive about addressing school violence but is sometimes stymied by principals who don’t report violations of the Student Code of Conduct (as district policy stipulates). Lack of resources is also a problem, he says.

“If they don’t call, it builds a climate of danger,” Perrotte says. “Some schools are out of control, but because the principal is not reporting it, it looks like there are no problems.”

‘Like prison’

Charlotta Stewart, a senior at Harlan High in Roseland, says that safety problems made her want to avoid school, although a new, get-tough principal has made the school less hectic. But Stewart isn’t so sure the changes are positive.

“It is like prison,” Stewart says, a common refrain heard from teenagers who complain that metal detectors, security officers, police and other signs of tight security may make schools safer, but also less welcoming.

At Harlan, the first thing students see when they arrive in the morning is one or more police cars parked outside. Inside, they see signs admonishing them not to bring guns through the door.

Sometimes, gruff security guards holler at them to keep moving as they try to get through the metal detector before their class starts; if it beeps, they have to stop. Once in the hallway, cameras keep a constant watch on students.

“Take off your shoes, take off your belt, remove your cell phone,” says Stewart, explaining what students hear as they enter.

But while security staff look for small infractions, bigger ones can be brewing, some students point out. Kentrell Petties, a senior at Julian High who was injured last May in the Blair Holt shooting that made front-page headlines, says administrators didn’t notice that a group of boys were causing trouble at the school before the incident.

“All the students knew there was trouble,” Petties says, explaining that he feels administrators were too busy making sure students weren’t wearing hoodies or carrying cell phones to notice and confront the problem.

Julian’s Principal Johnson, however, says students don’t always see the big picture. Checking for hooded sweatshirts and cell phones might not seem to be a big deal to a student—until a knife is hidden in a hood or a cell phone is used to set up an assault of a student at the end of the school day.

“The one or two students often ruin it for everyone,” Johnson says.

Meanwhile, Stewart and other students brought together by the Mikva Challenge, a non-profit that encourages civic engagement by teens, recommended in a report released just this August that schools do a better job of getting students to understand and buy-in to school rules. They also suggested that principals develop so-called ‘peace councils,’ where staff, students and administrators come together to talk about their problems.

The Mikva group criticized zero-tolerance policies that principals use to kick out troublemakers. Stewart and Thurman say that as their schools moved on the road to getting better, a lot of students were forced to leave.

A Catalyst Chicago analysis of expulsion data shows that the number of expulsion hearings fell 30 percent last year, and the number of students actually expelled was cut in half. (See related story.) But some question whether the decline is the result of principals pushing problem students out and avoiding the lengthy expulsion process.

Stewart believes that’s the case at Harlan, and notes that while the inside of the school may be safer, the streets are not. Once students leave school, they have to deal with out-of-school teenagers who cause trouble.

“They are all on 95th Street waiting for us,” says Stewart. “Those [kids] have nothing to do all day than wait for us.”

Restorative justice

Members of the parent group POWER-PAC and the Mikva student group argue for CPS to do more to teach young people how to resolve conflict without fights.

POWER-PAC took a trip to Minneapolis last year to visit schools that were using restorative justice, a concept that focuses on counseling wrongdoers and meting out punishment that fits the infraction. Peer juries are one example.

Lynn Morton, a parent and member of the group, says she was blown away. They walked into a school without metal detectors or a security desk, yet it was calm.

“Kids didn’t bum rush the halls, kids weren’t disrespectful, the atmosphere was serene,” she says.

POWER-PAC and other groups successfully pushed CPS to adopt a discipline policy that promotes the use of restorative justice. Hand in hand with that, they also wanted—and won—a move away from zero-tolerance. Now CPS policy encourages schools to use restorative justice practices to deal with non-violent offences.

Morton started a Peace Center at her son’s elementary school. Instead of serving suspensions out of school, students serve them at the Peace Center, where Morton helps supervise and counsel children on how to change their ways.

Other schools, such as Dyett High in Washington Park, which had an outbreak of fighting among girls last year, use “circles” in which the students involved come together and talk out problems.

Christine Agaiby, restorative justice manager at Alternatives Inc., a non-profit that trains students and teachers on using restorative justice principles and peer juries, says such strategies don’t take much money (especially compared to what the district spends on discipline) but do require commitment.

“It works if the principal and teachers at the school believe in it,” Agaiby says. “It does not work if the adults don’t trust it, if they just think it is some hippie crap.”

Connecting kids to school

Principals say making schools safer requires a balance between programs that engage students in positive behavior and equipment and security staff that keep troublemakers out.

Clemente Principal Leonard Kenebrew, who has worked at Simeon and South Shore, believes it’s important to have adequate equipment and security personnel. But he stresses that getting students invested in school is also crucial. “‘This is for you,'” Kenebrew says he tells students.

With that in mind, Kenebrew held a pep rally for the football team last year, the first in many years at the school. The event was important to bring the school together, he says, adding that he even performed a little dance to show his excitement. A school newspaper and school summits on various topics are also in the works.

Jerryelyn Jones, former principal at Curie and now Area 24 instructional officer, says two things made her school safer: hiring off-duty police officers in place of security guards and instituting a strict discipline policy.

But Jones says she made sure the school offered plenty of after-school activities and insisted that all students have a major, such as drama or International Baccalaureate, to keep them more invested in school.

“When I first came here, there were students with majors and then those in the regular program,” Jones says. “The students in the regular program often felt left out and caused problems. Though the school is big, with majors, all kids feel connected.”

Mikva students point out that schools need more counselors, social workers and psychologists who can get to the root of the problems. The district provides just one counselor for every 350 students, a ratio that is far higher than what is recommended by experts. Psychologists and social workers spend most of their time handling issues that arise with special education students.

Curie High junior Dmitri Westbrook passionately made the case for increasing counseling staff during a presentation by Mikva students to high school principals a week before school started.

“I don’t have an interactive relationship with my counselor,” Westbrook said.

Lack of funding keeps the district from reducing the caseloads of counselors, psychologists and social workers, Duncan says. But the district is working to provide more after-school and extracurricular programs, and Duncan announced at a press conference in mid-September that the district had secured $14 million in grants to pay for them.

Not only do these activities keep students excited about school, they also keep them from hanging out in the afternoon on the streets, where danger might lurk, Duncan says.

The need for the school district to do something was driven home at a recent press conference by Ron Holt, the father of Blair Holt. “Schools don’t make these problems. Students come to school with these problems,” he said. “But if we don’t deal with them, they become our worst nightmare.”

Contact Sarah Karp at (312) 673-3882 or e-mail

Sarah Karp

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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