CHICAGO — Mariame Kaba is the founding director of Project NIA, a Chicago-based nonprofit that supports youth involved in the criminal justice system with a mission to eradicate the incarceration of minors. The organization teaches local schools how to implement peace circles and other dispute mediation measures. The Chicago Bureau spoke to Kaba about what the U.S. Education Department’s newly released guidelines for school discipline, which call for an end to punitive punishment, means for Chicago Public Schools.
The Chicago Bureau: Project NIA has always worked in restorative justice in Chicago. Can you tell me more about what you have done in terms of reforming school discipline?
Kaba: When we launched in 2009, a huge part of our work was interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline in our own community. We began as an organization by setting up a peace room at a local school … called Gale Community Academy. We would commit to the school by bringing in volunteers who were trained in (restorative justice), and it was an opportunity for the school, administrators and teachers, to send young people to the peace room as opposed to suspending them from school or arresting them.
CPS really needed to take on the cost that is needed for a school like Gale, which is very under-resourced, to have the counsellors, to have the teacher training and everything they needed to address classroom discipline issues better, to understand that the discipline issues young people exhibit come from deprivation and oppression that they’re dealing with outside of school.
From that moment on, we’ve been very focused on addressing school discipline issues both through continuing to be a resource for schools in our community on restorative justice but also … advocating directly at CPS for CPS to provide data, transparency around school discipline. How do you know you’re making any progress if you have a restorative justice center at the school and you can’t figure out what the numbers are?
We actually had a good win in December when CPS agreed to now begin starting in early March they’ll be putting up school discipline data broken down according to various demographic groups and you can look at it school by school and get a general sense of what’s happening. One of the things that the feds actually put in their suggestions for best practices is that schools be more transparent about sharing their data.
The Chicago Bureau: Throughout the years, has CPS been a willing partner on your agenda of bringing restorative justice into schools?
Kaba: Gale has always been a trouble school and it’s always sent a lot of kids out to being arrested because that was the work were dealing with: dramatically decreasing the number of arrests and incarceration of youth in Chicago. We had to work with the schools first. That was a logical connection for us, so we approached them. And Cassandra Washington, who was the principal there when we approached Gale, she was open and very much interested in having a community-based group that could help her in any way possible. She personally was open.
Learn more about school discipline reform trends at the Juvenile Justice Resource Hub HERE.
CPS over the years has not resourced these efforts enough. There’s no big or small money coming out to people like us. There’s some peer jury work they’ve done over the years and sporadic “culture of calm initiatives,” but it’s not been an articulated system of addressing these issues, at least from a restorative justice perspective. It’s not centralized. You work with a local school, if the principal there is open and wants to establish a partnership, then you establish one with them. I think now CPS is talking about being more proactive in seeking ways to introduce restorative justice into schools.
The Chicago Bureau: What are some indicators that give you the impression CPS is actually going to acknowledge centrally the need to become more restorative rather than punitive?
Kaba: Now that Jadine Chou is the new head of safety and security at CPS, as somebody who was trained in restorative justice and had employed it at the Chicago Public Housing Authority when she was there, she came with a kind of predisposition to work with restorative justice. We work very closely with her as it relates to the data transparency measures. She’s the first person at CPS we’ve sat down with on that a couple of years ago. The fact that they’re now wanting to be open about school discipline suggests a change.
The Chicago Bureau: What actual action are you expecting as someone who works directly in trying to make restorative justice part of the official operations of CPS now that even the Obama Administration is stepping out to say the school-to-prison pipeline is a real thing?
Kaba: In order to actually understand what is going on, it’s important to say that the schools are not actually the first place the pipeline happens. There’s a reason people talk about the cradle-to-prison pipeline because what no school can do is to end poverty. What I want CPS to be better at is provide adequate training for teachers to get better at classroom management in how to work with young people in non-punitive ways. I know it’s very hard. Teachers are overwhelmed. They’re pressed for having to teach and get scored and fighting to survive under No Child Left Behind. I get that.
I would love for there not to be any police officers in the school. I know that’s honestly by now a school-by-school decision at the principal level and not a CPS decision. CPS offers an opportunity for every high school to offer up to two police officers if they choose to use that, but the principal can choose to use it for something else. At the level of the administration of CPS, we want data transparency to improve. We want them also to give information about arrests eventually and we want them to give us data about charter schools because they report differently from traditional CPS schools. We want them to provide resources to local organizations that have the knowledge of how to set up restorative justice at schools. CPS has done a great job of taking zero tolerance out of the discipline code, but they haven’t funded the initiatives that are going to be needed to support the practical implication of teaching people how to not be punitive.
The Chicago Bureau: What is your impression of the impact the new federal guidelines will have on CPS and Project NIA?
Kaba: More than anything it’s validated the work and the advocacy, and just acknowledging that the pipeline exists and it’s real, and racial discrimination and discrimination against young people with special needs is real. For the last 15 people, most people organizing around this stuff has been saying ‘No really, there is a pipeline. No really, black kids are getting kicked out in inordinate numbers disproportionate to any behavioral problem, like there’s actually racism involved here. There’s structural oppression going on here.’ Having these words spoken by Eric Holder and Arne Duncan was validation for groups like mine and groups across the country, that what we’ve been saying about this is true and demonstrably so.
It’s problematic that they don’t take a clear position on whether schools should have police officers but the fact that it’s clear that having them is potentially problematic is removed somewhat from the unqualified ‘It’s a good thing to have police officers in schools all the time.’ Suggesting strongly that schools and districts be more accountable around data makes a difference. It means that groups around the country that have to negotiate with school districts that don’t want to be transparent about their data now have a new tool in their arsenal coming from the federal government. There’s no money behind it. It’s not binding. It’s really gonna have to be, frankly, case-by-case and continued advocacy in local communities.
The Chicago Bureau: What’s next for Project NIA to convince CPS to standardize restorative justice in schools?
Kaba: We’ve been so consumed on this data transparency struggle. We been doing our day-to-day work of working with young people that we haven’t had a chance to think through what the next potential campaign will be around these issues. We’re taking a little break for a minute. We’re going to celebrate our win for a second and then continue to fight.
Very often when we do the work that we all do around trying to end the criminalization of youth of color in particular, it is really difficult. It’s sometimes very isolating. You wonder when we’re going to have a break. Are we going to get positive news, are we going to have any sort of an opening, does anybody care about this. I think that for all the folks that worked for a really long time across the country to bring the issue of the pipeline to prominence, this should be celebrated. It doesn’t mean the issue is going to end or change tomorrow, but concerted efforts by large groups of people over time does make a difference.
Produced by The Chicago Bureau.