If you ever, for a minute, thought that the road to racial and educational equity was going to be on an ever upward trajectory, that profound culture change in century-old institutions would be smooth, that a middle school filled with our adolescent children would be transformed by the mere notion of restorative justice practices, well, then you’ve had a disillusioning week. 

The Journal’s front page story last week on the frustrations and worries of a majority of the people who teach at Percy Julian and Gwendolyn Brooks middle schools in Oak Park was pretty much a gut punch. In a survey conducted last fall by the Oak Park Teachers Association union, wide majorities of faculty said they felt expectations of student discipline had been abandoned, that teachers often felt unsafe and mostly felt unsupported by school and district administrators.

We’ve never seen the like of this survey. Grousing and grumbling by teachers is common, especially in the middle schools in Oak Park. It is a hard job, at a tough age, in a complex community. But when the union feels the need to conduct this first-ever survey, in part because they feel the district’s own school climate surveys are unreliable, when that survey is deemed public information and handed over to the local publisher, when it is so scathing and declaratory, effectively a vote of no confidence in district leadership, then it has our rapt attention.

From the school board, newly reinforced by voters with racial equity bona fides, to a deeply backed superintendent now intensely packing more top-down staffing, training, and curriculum into equity work, change has arrived in the District 97 elementary and middle schools. Change is hard in public education. More even than the average professional, teachers do not like change. And everything is harder in a middle school. Always has been.

We are free-floating between a discipline system that may have kept the lid on but was absolutely and every day a manifestation of institutional racism. There’s no sugar-coating that and there is no going back to it. But the future of discipline, the exposition of necessary expectations is, seemingly far from real. Teachers we talk to say that, for all the talk about restorative justice practices as the healing path to accountability, it doesn’t yet exist on the ground, in the hallways, at the moment the punk kid swears at the teacher.

And let’s talk about our dear children. Mostly they’re great, but some are stinkers and those stinkers are smart enough to recognize we’re operating in a void of fewer suspensions, administrators on tenterhooks and a future discipline system many teachers don’t believe in and which is not, at the moment, real. They’re taking advantage. And they need to be reeled in during a transition which needs to be shorter.

By the way, we’re all in on hearing “student voice,” but let’s remember these are the voices of 13-year-olds. They have wisdom we need to hear, but at the same time they can be insecure, unkind nincompoops. We need to respond accordingly.

As said at the start, this change is necessary but it isn’t easy. There is a window to get this closer to right. But windows close, too.

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