Peer jury goes public at Wells High School

Written By BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter Posted: 03/13/2014, 06:38am
Array Mayor Rahm Emanuel watches a "peer jury"€of a freshman's behavioral and academic struggles in two classes at Wells High School. | Fran Spielman~Sun-Times

It was supposed to be a “peer jury” of her Wells High School classmates confidentially determining what to do about a freshman’s behavioral and academic struggles in two classes.

Instead, it turned into a media circus, with the girl’s failing grades, verbal and physical outbursts — culminating in her decision to throw a textbook at a student who threw a pen at her — on display as television cameras recorded the moment.

On Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration invited reporters to witness the girl’s peer jury to showcase a revised student code of conduct that has produced a 36 percent drop in school suspensions.

The fact that a struggling freshman might have been embarrassed in the process was not part of the equation.

Still, the girl welcomed the chance to avoid an out-of-school suspension.

“I would have missed school. I would have never got my work. And I would have had to make up a lot of work,” the freshman said.

She was asked whether she would change her behavior based on the reasoned and compassionate suggestions made by the jury of her peers.

They include: writing a “sincere and heartfelt” apology to the teachers whose classes she’s accused of disrupting; helping to clean their classrooms; getting help with her school work; arranging a parent-teacher conference and changing her seat to get away from classmates who tend to get her in trouble.

“It helped me learn that I can do better [and] apologize to my teachers,” she said. At a follow-up news conference, Emanuel and Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett made no mention of the girl’s peer jury. That’s even though they arrived in time for the conclusion of it.

Instead, they highlighted changes in a “zero-tolerance” policy that have replaced out-of-school suspensions for all but the most serious offenses with peer juries, peace circles and other less-punitive actions.

“There is still suspension here. They still use it. But it’s a last resort. It’s not the first thing you jump to,” Emanuel said.

“We’re trying to make sure the kids get to graduation and go on to higher education. Kicking `em out repeatedly sets you back from that. Sets them back. Sets us back.”

Last month, President Barack Obama’s administration urged school officials to abandon unnecessarily harsh suspension and expulsion practices that appear to target black students, who made up 76 percent of Chicago’s out of school suspensions in 2009.

On Tuesday, Byrd-Bennett made it clear she’s not done revising the student code-of-conduct in partnership with “external partners” she did not identify.

“Right now, a child can still be suspended for having a cell phone. We don’t think that makes very much sense. We know we need to put some parameters around it. But we need the input of our partners to think that through,” she said.

Byrd-Bennett said so-called “zero-tolerance” policies now being phased out across the country are a “personal” issue for her.

“I see a disproportionate number of children who are expelled or suspended for reasons I think are unwarranted, including the use of a cell phone. I mean — this is the 21st Century. My grandchildren have cell phones and they’re [age] 9. They’re not allowed to take `em to school. But they have cell phones,” she said.

“We need to really re-visit what is it that we expect of our children as we prepare them to act and interact — not only in school but externally.”

The Noble Network of Charter Schools, one of the largest in Chicago, has been accused of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars by fining students. Other charters have been accused of being overly punitive to purge their student bodies of chronic troublemakers.

What does CPS plan to do about that?

“Charter schools are obviously under a different governance structure. They are not required to follow our code of conduct,” Byrd-Bennett said.

“What our charter partners have done, however, is to join us as we take a next step in a review of our student code of conduct. They’ve committed to work with us and take a look at their student code so that the two discipline codes are aligned.”



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