There are concepts that are easy to support in the abstract. Put a plank about “restorative justice” in a school district strategic plan and we can all be all for it. That’s because most of us, at least in Oak Park, know that the traditional methods of school discipline haven’t worked very well.
Suspending and expelling students who seriously mess up is just not the path to epiphany and sound choices. Further, we know the data and it is plain that the discipline system in both the middle schools and the high school has year-after-year grabbed up a disproportionate number of black students.
So, in theory, we’re supportive of sincere efforts to change the ways we deal with youngsters who make serious mistakes. But last week was a hard one at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School and Percy Julian Middle School. On a single day, there were three incidents that stirred much upset among parents. A student at each school brought a weapon into the building – a pellet gun and a knife. Of course, we are all rightly on edge over weapons in schools. And at Brooks, a student was set upon by three fellow students and beat up pretty soundly.
These are real issues that make it hard for parents to be patient — though patience is one of the virtues we most want to inculcate in our kids. As parents’ we also caution our tweens not to get caught up in the “middle school drama” fueled incessantly on social media.
But worried and mad parents also get caught in our social media whirlwind and echo chamber and it is easy for incidents like these to catch fire. Live comments on our own OakPark.com website can also contribute to more extreme responses as people seek to declare themselves while being well away from the actual fray.
By Friday morning there was a parents’ meeting convened at Brooks that turned out a standing-room-only crowd. The Journal’s reporter described the meeting as tense as LeeAndra Khan, the principal, and other administrators, took questions from parents who ranged from concerned to agitated.
There was the inevitable friction as a room crowded with parents roused by reports of disturbing incidents were told multiple times that no additional details about either the incidents or the consequences would be released as those involved were minors. That is the bind that each of us as parents should understand and surely respect as we contemplate the judgment errors each of our kids has committed at some point, in some venue.
Maintaining a child’s privacy is critical and correct. That does not mean those students did not face consequences for their serious errors. It just means we won’t all be privy to those consequences.
But in a week where the haunting notion from the 1990s of “zero tolerance” in schools was resurrected as a serious question, this week gives us the moment to think through our values as individuals and as a community.
Surely, we can have empathy for both the victims and the perpetrators. It does not diminish us to hold each of these children in our thoughts, to worry over them, to hold them to shared values.
And, of course, there are things to be learned in the response to these incidents. How can communication be improved? How can families be assured that less punitive punishments, that more individualized consequences, still affirm expectations that in our schools and in our village you can be both loved and held to account?