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Natasha S. Alford/Medill Reports. Animation production by Next Media.

 

At Alternatives Inc. in Uptown, students are trained to deal with conflicts at their high schools using principles of restorative justice.

 


Teens teach each other lessons in justice

by Natasha S. Alford
Jun 10, 2014


IN DEPTH (Side)

Natasha S. Alford/Medill Reports

At Alternatives Inc. in Uptown, students are trained to deal with conflicts at their high schools using principles of restorative justice.

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When Denisia Bryant, 17, walks into a room she commands attention without a word. “Everyone this is Denisia, I don't know if you've met her,” says a group coordinator, interrupting the conversation to make sure she gets a proper introduction. The circle warmly greets the Senn High School junior. She smiles, then sits down.

But Denisia didn’t always walk into rooms with the same confidence.

“I was only a sophomore and I was like, ‘I don’t want to go to school,’” Bryant said, referring to her early days at Senn High School.

She says being a transfer student was a tough transition and she was struggling to come to grips with one particularly big personal matter. The reintroduction of her biological father into her life after years of absence made her wonder if she could reconcile with him after so many years apart. To her surprise, the answer to her question came when she joined the Senn chapter of the Peace Ambassador program.

“I stumbled into the Restorative Justice room at Senn by accident,” said Bryant. “I thought it was a classroom at first but it was actually a mediation room.”

Restorative justice is an approach that brings individuals who’ve committed harm to sit across the table with the individuals they’ve harmed — including anyone else who was affected — and try to repair the harm they did. Sponsored by Alternatives Inc., the Peace Ambassador program engages CPS students by training them in the restorative justice philosophy.

In the case of school discipline, restorative justice takes the form of peer mediation, conflict resolution, and general peace-building circles. Rather than starting with suspensions or expulsions for discipline, the Restorative Justice Peace Ambassador Program asks students to reflect on their issues, come face to face with anyone they violated, and commit to starting anew.

Denisia was drawn to the fact that Peace Ambassadors were trained to quell and resolve conflicts among other students (and even between students and teachers) as they arose. It was a role of leadership and great responsibility she knew she wanted to take on right away.

“I was like ‘Fine, I don’t really know any of these kids so I might as well figure out how to help the ones that I can potentially know,'’’ said Bryant.

In the case of high schools, petty dramas, fights, repeated tardiness and handbook violations are all causes for Peace Ambassador intervention.

“Really, it's them stepping up and being leaders for change in their schools and changing the discipline,” said Hope Lassen, a restorative justice specialist who leads the program.

Denisia knows better than anyone that troublesome student behaviors are sometimes motivated by internal troubles. Through helping other students sort through their problems, she says she started to repair the relationship with the one person she most wanted to reconcile with— her father.

“It’s like I can restore this relationship right now—a relationship that I never had and move on,” said Bryant. “And that’s what I did.”