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Lacy Schley/MEDILL

Panelists share personal anecdotes about their students at a discussion of female and LGBTQ student safety in Chicago Public Schools.

Report finds many girls and LGBTQ students feel unsafe in Chicago public schools

by Lacy Schley
April 12, 2012

Sexual harassment strikes nearly half of Chicago public middle and high school students, according to a report released Wednesday evening by Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE).

And nearly 65 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and queer and questioning students feel unsafe, according to the same report.

Other statistics released in the report showed nearly 11 percent of Chicago high school girls stated feeling too unsafe to go to school.

Peer juries, "peace circles" and "restorative practices" in schools are all solutions suggested by the report from CReATE. The volunteer group draws on Chicago-area education researchers in a mission to conduct and disseminate studies that "address the needs of our students, parents and schools."

“Right now, we’re in a really depressive and oppressive environment in education,” said Amira Proweller, associate professor at DePaul University's School of Education and a panel speaker discussing the report Wednesday at Roosevelt University. Proweller is among the authors of the report.

“The idea of a school as a community, it’s being undermined every day,” Proweller said.

Advocates on the panel said Chicago Public Schools (CPS) need to consider implementing restorative justice practices in schools to combat hostile environments for these students.

Panelist Jean Klasovsky, a teacher at Farragut Career Academy in Chicago and a gay-straight alliance sponsor at the school, defined restorative practices as an approach that focuses on building relationships after a conflict occurs, rather than simply holding the offender accountable.

Nearly half of Chicago middle and high school students claim they experience sexual harassment. These cases ranged from physical and cyber-harassment to negative comments about perceived sexual identities, according to the report.

At least for girls, the behaviors directed toward them may stem from cultural influences, said panelist Lynn Morton, the founder and coordinator of Austin Peace Center in Chicago.

“I think there’s this unspoken level of permissive behaviors; that it’s okay to do or say things to a girl because you’re a boy and you’re ‘at that age’,” Morton said.

Morton suggests having time set aside for just girls to gather and talk out these issues so students and staff can work together to address them.

“Peace circles just for girls gives them space to discuss these things,” Morton said, adding that the absence of boys in the circle lets the girls really open up to faculty and staff.

Klasovsky said the use of peer juries, a group of student who work with the victim and the offender to try and work things out, has been working at her school.

However, peer juries are only used in cases of lower-level infractions and are only an option, not a requirement, for discipline.

“One of the limitations of peer juries I’ve been struggling with is that it takes a lot of cooperation and people,” Klasovsky.

On the other hand, "restorative justice practices have been used for more serious offenses," said panelist Ana Mercado, a youth organizer at Blocks Together in Chicago. "Restorative justice principles can be applied to whatever the situation is."

Though these restorative justice practices are not yet widely implemented, there are resources provided by CPS, according to panelists.

The CPS Student Code of Conduct actually mentions the word "restorative" 33 times, says the report released by CReATE.

Additionally, Morton said CPS created an office specifically to provide schools with restorative practice resources.

However, Morton also said CPS is not actively using this office enough.

“I’ve yet to see CPS do anything,” Morton said. “Nothing they’ve done has backed up what they’ve said. Not once in seven years.”

If parents are concerned about their children’s safety at school and want to see more restorative practices implemented, Morton advised against going straight to administrators.

“Start talking to neighbors and parents about what you see,” Morton said. “Then have that conversation” with school administrators.