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In a Chicago public school, we’ve found a better way than guns to keep the peace

Students pose for a group photo at Marine Leadership Academy. / Photo from the Marine Leadership Academy

Donald Trump thinks giving educators guns will make schools safer. He’s wrong.

Besides coming straight out of a dystopian novel, arming teachers would exacerbate traumatic stress for many of our students and cause real harm to a school’s climate and culture. Adding guns to our classrooms will, without a doubt, make our schools less safe.

OPINION

As an educator on Chicago’s West Side, I have seen how violence begets violence, especially when we don’t address the root causes.

In 2013, I was hired as the “dean of discipline” at Marine Leadership Academy, but I have since changed my title. I am now the “dean of restorative practices” because my true role is to resolve conflicts — and prevent new ones — by using alternatives to such punitive measures as detention, suspension and expulsion. Those more traditional approaches only reinforce, rather than disrupt, the school-to-prison pipeline.

In my school, we address student trauma and resolve behavior incidents in a peaceful, community-centered manner in which participants are held accountable for their actions and gain deeper understanding of the impact their actions have on others. We need to arm educators with training on these restorative practices — not guns — to truly make schools safer.

This is why I am asking the Illinois Legislature to strengthen their commitment to making restorative practices a priority in our schools, by passing House Joint Resolution 115 (HJR115). The resolution urges the U.S. Department of Education not to rescind Obama-era guidelines on this more effective way to resolve conflicts.

What does restorative practice look like in action?

The other day, I held a peace circle with eight middle school girls on the verge of a physical fight. Rather than allow it to escalate, I gathered them into a circle in my office. We first established rules for how to proceed respectfully in order to resolve the conflict peacefully. As the facilitator of the group, I encouraged reflection and thoughtful communication between them.

Each student admitted how they hurt someone in the circle and shared how they could have handled it differently after better understanding each others’ perspectives. By the end, we had cleared up rumors and everyone was in tears and hugging, instead of fighting. I have seen this work time and time again. The girls apologized to each other and most importantly, their emotions were validated.

This is how we address potential dangers peacefully and effectively. We held a follow up session a few days later to ensure that the conflict remained resolved.

When we punish children by removing them from classrooms or schools, they not only miss out on learning, but also on the opportunity to understand the consequences of their actions. Punitive discipline teaches students to fear punishment, rather than confront how their behavior impacts those around them. We have to help students learn from their mistakes so they make better decisions going forward.

In my school, shifting from punishment to restorative practices has allowed our students to develop lifelong skills and benefited our whole school community. We have reduced my school’s suspension rates from more than 100 a year to fewer than 35. Fewer suspensions have also meant a reduction in fighting, bullying, harassing, and threatening behaviors.

Additionally, our classroom incident rates have decreased by as much as 40 percent in most classrooms this year compared to previous years, creating a more productive learning environment.

A few educators may be asking for guns, but thousands are asking for more constructive, long-term alternatives. In Chicago, educators are asking their state representatives to pass legislation that would support these restorative approaches.

My school, among others, has seen the amazing impact restorative practices have on students. Let’s send a message to our elected officials that we should arm our schools with peaceful solutions — not firearms.

Magdalena Pagan is a dean at Marine Leadership Academy in the Hermosa community of Chicago. She also is a member of the Chicago Teacher’s Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.

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