Blocks Together, a grassroots community organizing group in Chicago's West Side, launched their “Graduate Don’t Incarcerate” campaign in an effort to interrupt the school to prison pipeline by replacing zero tolerance approaches with restorative justice in public schools.

After experiencing and witnessing excessive out-of-school suspensions and arrests, the Blocks Together Youth Council (BTYC) started investigating potential discipline alternatives that would not criminalize youth. When Chicago Public Schools (CPS) failed to provide school arrest data to BYTC after they sent a Freedom of Information Act request, BTYC publicly demonstrated at CPS and succeeded in getting the information. In 2007, with the help of startling data, they got CPS to pilot restorative justice programs in six elementary schools.

A year later, the neighborhood high school, Orr, was slated to be "turned around" as part of the CPS corporate plan for school reform, "Renaissance 2010". The Turnaround would result in a lay off all staff and a management company would be brought in to run the school. A Local School Council, the traditional mechanism for community oversight, would no longer exist. BYTC thought that eliminating every familiar face in the school building would further destabalize their community, which was already facing some of the highest foreclosure rates in the city and where 30% of youth were in foster care. As a result, BTYC organized a student walk out and over 100 youth attended the CPS board meeting to testify and protest the Turnaround. Despite community and student outrage, ultimately, CPS proved successful and the school was taken over.

Under the new management agency, BTYC encountered the pushout of students in a unique way – youth found that they faced significant barriers to getting enrolled in school. Many students – particularly students with a record of bad grades, behavior issues, or tardiness – experienced significant delays in receiving their school schedules at the start of school in Fall 2008. Two weeks after school had started, these students were still not placed. When they tried to figure out what was going on, many of them were told they were no longer welcome and provided with a list of alternative schools to attend instead; according to school records, these students had “dropped out” or transferred. In fact, what was happening in some cases was that students were not in school at all and, apparently, not being encouraged to attend regular school. Blocks Together worked with affected youth to secure placements and ensure that students were not simply getting lost in the system.

In 2009, BYTC successfully partnered with multiple teachers to implement restorative justice workshops in individual classes. In fact, at Orr, the youth successfully fought to eliminate in-school suspension and replace it with a “peace room.” The idea for a “peace room” came after horrendous allegations that students were being paddled and brought to the in-school suspension room to “finish” their fights. The “peace room” provides a place where students can talk about misbehavior and work through problems. BT's youth organizer co-trained a peer jury at the school, and many jurors are now working through BTYC on the stuctural problems they see manifested in their cases. Certain conduct, such as tardiness, disrespect, and fighting, are now eligible for a peer jury to review, evaluate, and determine an appropriate solution; BTYC is working to make the school administration fully embrace this new approach so that more youth get reffered to the restorative justice programs. In the future, Blocks Together hopes to get CPS to agree to fund restorative justice  and similar “peace room” type activities in all schools in the city.

Most recently, BTYC youth secured an agreement form CPS to include them in creating meaningful training for school security guards to prevent harrassment and abuse of students. Youth have repeatedly complained about the guards’ inability to deal with and relate to young people and their tendency to escalate, rather than de-escalate problems. BTYC presented their demands around better training to CPS' Chief Executive Officer at a large forum put together by Gender JUST's Safe and Affirming Education campaign in Spring 2009 and, after several meetings in the Fall 2009, the CPS Department of Safety and Security agreed to all of their demands. BTYC is now working to make sure these agreements translate into real changes.
For more information, contact:
Ana Mercado
Youth Organizer
3453 W. North Ave.
Chicago, IL 60647 
T: 773-276-2194, ext. 20005
[email protected]