Oak Park Township eyes OPRF High School for Peace Corner program

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

The candid discussion about student experiences with race and culture at the Dec. 6 Oak Park and River Forest High School board retreat could become an ongoing conversation, said Pamela Purdie, a restorative justice trainer who spoke at the retreat. 

The Oak Park Township Youth Services is looking to train adults to do the kind of work she does at Chicago Public Schools. One of the programs is Peace Circles, where students come together to resolve their conflicts through open, honest talk. The township is hoping to train OPRF staff to conduct their own "Peace Corners" in the school.

The schools provide facilitators like Purdie with space to create a "Peace Room" just for the students. Purdie trains teachers and conducts Peace Circles herself. She did some with OPRF students on discipline issues a week prior to the retreat. 

At the Dec. 6 retreat at Oak Park Public Library, attended by more than 50 people, Purdie talked about the recent sessions with OPRF students and what impact they had.

OPRF junior Ieva Ambraziejus participated in one and talked about her experience at the retreat. Ambraziejus, who is white, talked about discipline at the high school. As a white student, she said she doesn't get called out for certain infractions like her black friends. 

Purdie said OPRF needs a program to foster such open and frank conversations. She did three circles with black students but added another in order to get white students' perspectives.

"In order for this to be credible, I said we need to hear from the white students, so we added another circle and I'm glad we did," she said. "This was the highlight of those circles. And in my introduction with any student, I say, tell me your name, what's working in the school for you and what's not working."

Purdie then brought the black and white students together to share their experiences. 

"We brought them together; they were so shocked. The white students said what I expected, and it's a good thing. 'What's working for me is that we have 200-something clubs, all of these different clubs,' which is so true. They were so excited about that. What's working for me, again, is the teachers; they found mentors, just very connected to the teachers," Purdie said. "For the African-American students, all they could think about was what was not working. 'The disciplinary piece wasn't fair; we get this done to us and that' … they could not connect well with it."

Purdie praised OPRF for having so many clubs and teachers who are engaging all students, but some of the black students said they weren't experiencing in that. 

"They could not connect with any of the clubs. They could not connect with any of the teachers, because they did not feel it was a part of their experiences at the school. They told me when they hit the door, they're looking out for who's going to call them out, who's going to tell them to do this, who's going to yell at them."

 The white students, Purdie said, were shocked that those students could only connect with the unfairness of the discipline system.   

"So that is where the healing began and where the real conversation started," Purdie said. "And what I said, in working with these wonderful students — students of color and white students — you are so ahead of the adults. They are so ahead of the adults in the school, because they didn't want to leave the circle and wanted to keep talking."

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