Sheila M. Murphy
Sheila M. Murphy
Michael P. Seng
Michael P. Seng

In the first semester of the 2013-14 school year at Chicago Public Schools, four out of 10 student-misconduct incidents resulted in out-of-school suspensions.

That totaled more than 25,000 suspensions for roughly 16,000 students from pre-K through 12th grade, CPS data shows.

In the first semester of the current school year, 17 percent of misconduct incidents resulted in out-of-school suspensions — down to 9,907 suspensions for just under 7,000 students.

And expulsions dropped 38 percent from last school year’s count of 200 to 124 this school year.

CPS credits the decline in suspensions and expulsions to a change in its code of conduct which emphasizes a less punitive approach to discipline known as “restorative justice.”

Now the city of Chicago is paying The John Marshall Law School to keep those numbers trending down.

The Department of Public Health has awarded the law school a $64,000 grant to be paid out for two years — this year and next — to support the school’s Restorative Justice Project, an elective course that brings law students into public schools to work with students with behavioral issues and ones who are chronically truant.

Through communicative “peace circles” and conflict resolution instruction, the law students help the public school students find productive solutions to problems while also showing teachers and administrators the benefits of nonpunitive discipline.

The grant lets John Marshall hire an attorney to coordinate the law students, which has led to an increase in students involved in the program, now up to 12.

It increases the program’s budget to $132,000.

The project is the brainchild of John Marshall professor Michael P. Seng and adjunct professor Sheila M. Murphy, a retired Cook County circuit judge who was a CPS teacher in the 1960s prior to law school.

Her experience was one of troubled students and an often apathetic staff.

“Just six months in Chicago Public Schools made me feel like I never wanted to go back and teach school,” Murphy said.

“But life is strange. And I simply couldn’t get it out of my mind and heart that those children needed help.”

Correcting the equation

Restorative justice approaches discipline by working with the wrongdoer, the victim and the community “to get at the roots of anti-social behavior and solve it in a peaceful, harmonious way rather than through incarceration or going to court,” Seng said.

While numbers like the ones above tell part of the restorative justice tale, one John Marshall student uses a different numerical analogy as an entry point into understanding the law school’s approach to discipline.

“When you do a math problem, if you have one number off at the beginning of the problem, you’re going to be off all the way down to the end,” said Michael Thompson, who works at Richards Career Academy in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and just completed his second year of law school.

“With restorative justice, we look for wherever that one number is off and try to fix that.”

That means taking a broader look at common impediments to student success, such as tardiness. It is one of the project’s focal points. Thompson saw its importance with one Richards student.

For an end-of-the-year competition, Richards students were asked to select a school rule or policy that negatively affected them and rewrite it so that the school can uphold the rule without adversely impacting students.

The winning project came from a girl who wants to revise the school’s tardiness punishment. The school day starts at 7:45 a.m., but this girl is responsible for taking her younger sister to school at 7:30 a.m. since their parents work nights and sleep in the morning.

As a result, the girl is regularly late for school and is accruing detentions. Her grades, Thompson said, are slipping.

In an effort to adjust the rule to meet student needs, Thompson, Murphy and the project’s new attorney coordinator Sharlyn D. Grace developed what they consider a “reasonable alternative” — reclassifying tardies such as the ones this girl experiences as excused.

The school’s principal is now considering the girl’s argument and the group’s proposal for implementation, Thompson said.

“That’s what restorative justice would do,” he said. “It would seek out the harm and correct it and not penalize people who are not responsible.”

Tardiness to incarceration

The focus on tardiness, attendance, suspensions and expulsions as key metrics in evaluating the impact of restorative justice comes from a simple notion: Being in school is better for children than not being in school.

Unexcused tardiness and truancy are indicators of a student’s detachment from the school, Grace said. Consistent attendance increases the likelihood that a student will graduate. Graduation decreases the likelihood of incarceration.

In January 2014, the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice reported 806 juveniles in jail. As of April 30, that number is down to 700.

Meanwhile, at Cesar E. Chavez Multicultural Academic Center, an elementary school in the Back of the Yards, attendance is strong and getting even stronger.

When Grace was hired in February as result of the grant, the school’s attendance was 95.7 percent. It increased in March, April and May and is now above 97 percent.

Some of the students who work with the John Marshall law students have attendance rates in the 80s.

“So when those students start coming more, it makes a huge individual difference,” Grace said.

John Marshall’s program works with two high schools, Richards and Marine Math and Science Academy on the Near West Side, and Chavez, an elementary school.

The law school joined Marine in the 2012-13 school year when that school hired Richards’ Assistant Principal Fred Aguirre and Dean of Students Jeff Whitaker as principal and assistant principal, respectively.

Aguirre and Whitaker made sure the John Marshall program came too.

“We saw how happy the students were,” Whitaker said. “We saw how it lessened the number of suspensions. It was kind of the one resource we had to try to prevent conflicts or violent situations instead of always reacting to situations after the fact.”

Marine’s administration is now training its teachers to use restorative justice not just in the school’s discipline office but in all student interactions in order to look at the root cause of problems instead of “going to the negative first,” Whitaker said.

And last week, the Illinois House passed a resolution that recommends the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission to review restorative justice practices in the juvenile justice systems. The goal, the resolution says, is “restoring public safety through restoration of the child in conflict with the law.”

Grace, for one, is encouraged by the state’s role in promoting restorative justice.

“It’s the future of both school discipline and the court systems, I hope,” she said.