Before I make it to the main office at Lockwood Elementary1—a K–8 school in a northside Chicago neighborhood—to get the Peace Room key and sign in, two more students are assigned to me.
At noon I am paged over the intercom: “Ms. C, please come to the assistant principal’s office immediately.” In Mrs. Edwards’s office I recognize a fourteen-year-old eighth-grader, Trevon, sitting across from her with his head in his hands.
“You are lucky that Ms. C is here,” Mrs. Edwards says. “Otherwise, you would be on your way to jail in handcuffs.”
Trevon had lashed out in the lunchroom at one of his peers, repeatedly shouting inappropriate and sexual slurs at a female classmate who had touched his neck while he was waiting in line to eat. Two security guards approached him. He continued to shout and was physically removed from the lunchroom and taken across the hall to the administrative office.
....At 3:30 P.M., right outside of the middle school building, a nasty fight erupts between two young men. Two students run up to the Peace Room: “Ms. C, Ms. C, please come to the basketball court. Jesse and Chris are fighting and the police are going to arrest them.” By the time I get downstairs, both young men are in handcuffs and being put into the back of a squad car. I ask Officer Hernandez to please not take the young men to the station. I promise to intervene. “I will run a peace circle,” I say. “Do you both agree to participate in a circle?” I ask both young men. They nod. Officer Hernandez looks skeptical but agrees to release them. He looks over to the boys and says, “You are lucky Ms. C is here vouching for you, but next time, you are going to the station.”
This snapshot is from an average day in the work of Project NIA, a Chicago-based community organization that attempts to engage alternative justice practices to halt the movement of young people from our communities into our prisons and jails. Lockwood Elementary and Middle School looks similar to many public schools across Chicago. At Lockwood, 65 percent of the 540 students spread out across two buildings are African American and 26 percent are Latino; the majority (nearly 95%) qualifies for free and reduced lunch (a federal designation signifying low income); and almost 20 percent are classified as having limited English proficiency. Over the past twenty years, students at Lockwood have consistently tested below national norms. And at Lockwood high rates of suspension are the norm.