Hay Elementary Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

Peer juries, the most common restorative justice practice in Chicago Public Schools, have existed in high schools since at least the 1990s.

Now, Hay Elementary has a promising peer jury program launched with the help of the district’s pilot restorative justice program.

Principal Wayne Williams says the peer jury began with strong teacher training and student recruitment.

Williams first met with the Office of Specialized Services about the grant in late February 2009. By March 27, teachers had gone through an introductory training. Later, they got more training, including instructions on how to refer behavior issues to the peer jury.

Next came student recruitment. A social worker for SGA Youth & Family Services, Rebecca Davis—who Williams says was “absolutely pivotal”—went to each 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade homeroom to give a presentation about the program and answer questions.

“It was kind of a sales pitch, if you will,” Williams says. “We got a real good mix. We had a couple of kids who, prior to the training, would have been prime candidates for peer jury cases.”  The training changed that by helping them see things from others’ perspective, “which is not the strength of any adolescent,” Williams notes.

Even though student training did not start until early May, nearly the end of the school year, 26 students participated. “The kids loved it, so we had them fully trained by the end of the year,” Williams says. One or two parents also participated, as did about half a dozen teachers – an indication of strong staff support.

Last year, about 10 to 15 peer jurors heard cases, Williams says, under the guidance of social worker Rebecca Davis.

The school has also used peace circles, targeted toward groups of students that have a high number of conflicts with peers. The first year, 3rd-grade boys were the focus; last year, it was 4th – and 6th-grade girls.

Williams says setting clear expectations for teachers was important. They knew they had to be involved in helping facilitate the circle, and they were expected to translate the training into a weekly class meeting.

Restorative justice became a frequent topic at staff meetings, Williams says. Teachers also brought concepts from the school’s social-emotional learning curriculum, Lion’s Quest, into peace circle discussions.

Although the grant has run out, the peace circles are still taking place in some classrooms. And Williams is working to sustain and spread the program by identifying which teachers are most skilled and having them train the rest.

The peer jury program is still going strong this fall as well. Ten 8th-grade students have returned to the program. Though they are still in the process of recruiting and training 6th- and 7th-graders, they have already heard two cases this fall from students as young as 3rd grade.

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