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At two Chicago charter schools, students help each other heal from violence

As a child, DeMarcus Thompson spent most of his time inside his home. His mother was worried about the shootings that broke out regularly in her neighborhood and didn’t want to risk letting him play outside.

Now, as a peace warrior at North Lawndale College Prep, the 17-year-old’s mission is to stop the fighting at his school before it escalates and contributes to violence beyond the walls of the school. ‘school.

The Peace Warriors program, a central part of the West Side Charter School’s efforts to address gun violence by centering student needs, trains students to mediate conflict, support grieving classmates, and bring peace and happiness to school by greeting peers at the front door and leaving birthday notes on lockers.

“Our biggest goal is to end violence – anywhere and to do that – we must first end violence inside of ourselves because violence begins internally with thought. “, said DeMarcus. “To achieve our goal, we must work together.”

City and school leaders have long struggled with pervasive gun violence in Chicago. Amid a series of shootings last fall, CEO Pedro Martinez called on city agencies, community groups and neighbors to working together to combat violence and support students.

In recent shootings, district leaders dispatched emergency counselors for a few days to support grieving students and staff, but ongoing mental health support and complementary services are needed beyond the classroom

In the first month of the new school year, nearly four dozen school-aged children were injured across the city in shootings between Aug. 22 and Sept. 16, according to data obtained from the New York City Police Department. Chicago through a request for records.

Dozens more have been injured and 15 have since been killed, according to the Sun Times.

North Lawndale College Prep’s Peace Warriors program is an attempt to break that cycle by turning students into “ambassadors of peace,” said Gerald Smith, a restorative justice specialist and supervisor of the program at the school.

Many students are “committed to being a solution to a serious problem,” Smith said, because they have personally experienced gun violence.

Students spread a message of peace and non-violence

In mid-October, about three dozen students sat side-by-side with teachers in a circle in a lecture hall on North Lawndale College Prep’s Collins campus and spoke about the loss of brothers, cousins, friends and neighbors. .

They described the aftermath of a loved one with a gunshot wound and the still-fresh mental and emotional scars of the violence.

“I feel like I see a lot of violence in my life,” said one student. “I feel like it’s something continuous, coming and going, faster and faster and faster and faster. I can feel it behind my back. I hate it.”

“People were coming down Christiana and people were shooting,” another student said, recalling trying to walk home from school when someone started shooting. “We had to run back into the building. We had to hide in the cafeteria.

“We heard someone call him outside and all of a sudden we heard 30 shots,” a third student said of a neighbor. “We looked out the front window and this man is dead. He received at least three bullets in the head.

“It was the second time I saw a corpse,” added the student.

The conversations were part of a two-day training session for the Peace Warriors, which included team building exercises, small breakout sessions and group discussions in which students learned the six principles of Nonviolence by Martin Luther King Jr.

The Peace Warriors and their advisor Gerald Smith sit in a circle during a mid-October training at North Lawndale College Prep.

Mauricio Pena / Chalkbeat

Founded in 2009, the Peace Warriors program was created following the expansion of the charter school into two campuses. A substantial increase in fighting prompted school leaders to implement a program to train students in King’s teachings, Smith said.

“Violence is a tragedy for everyone, but I think it’s much more tragic for students,” Smith said. “Peace Warriors is the most valuable alternative to their current life experiences.”

Much of the healing work comes from the Peace Warriors, headteachers said.

The students are the eyes and ears of the group, said Kyera Bradley, director of the charter’s Christiana campus.

They work to defuse issues while supporting their peers through condolence runs, when a Peace Warrior tries to support someone who has lost a loved one or is going through a difficult time by pushing them aside to chat or just for a hug. They have also conducted trainings in middle schools, high schools and in communities that have experienced gun violence.

“Their work was a game-changer,” Bradley said.

During a recent training with aspiring peace warriors, DeMarcus helped lead a focus group during a discussion of some of King’s principles. Part of the job is connecting with peers and helping them feel like they’re part of a group that shares a collective goal, he said.

“We’re trying to stop the violence in our schools and in our community,” DeMarcus said. “They feel the same about it. It is important to make this change.

Fellow Peace Warriors show love and kindness by greeting their classmates at the door in the morning, reaching out to struggling classmates, and acting as ambassadors of peace by teaching others about non- violence, said DeMarcus, who is a senior. The goal is to bring students into circles of peace before conflicts spiral out of control.

But it was not without difficulties.

“Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it’s easy,” he said. “What keeps me going is how I bring about change inside my school, even if it may not be immediate.”

Among the principles that Peace Warriors learn are: “non-violence is a way of life for brave people”, “the beloved community is the framework of the future”, “attack the forces evil, not those who do evil” and “accept the suffering without retaliation. for the cause of achieving the goal.

“The training and program help create a solution that engages the entire student body – staff, students, and our families,” Smith said. “It’s literally a life they choose because it’s either a matter of life or death for them and their friends.”

Reflecting on more than a decade of work advising the group, Smith continues to be optimistic as more students commit to changing their school and wider neighborhoods.

“Young people have been seen as the scourge, but to see them as the solution – it’s inspiring, it’s hopeful,” Smith said.

The Peace Warriors and their advisor Gerald Smith pose in mid-October after training aspiring students to join the group at North Lawndale College Prep.

The Peace Warriors and their advisor Gerald Smith pose in mid-October after training aspiring students to join the group at North Lawndale College Prep.

Mauricio Pena / Chalkbeat

Charter school expanded wraparound services

The Peace Warriors program isn’t the only way schools in North Lawndale are working to support students struggling with the trauma of gun violence. In recent years, the charter has expanded overall services to include a freshman experience coordinator, housing for homeless students, and programs such as drama therapy and student support groups.

Principal Bradley said the charter school has developed community partnerships with a mission to create a welcoming and safe learning environment for students. More recently, the school has started working with Books on ballsa group that supports students through sports and mentorship, she said.

Students grieving the loss of peers, family, or people in their neighborhood seek stability, Bradley said.

“My goal is to make sure everyone in this building has a sense of place, a sense of connection,” Bradley said. “I want them to know that we are going to take giant steps and go above and beyond to make sure they are safe. They are loved. They are cared for. They are heard.

That means checking in with new students and connecting them with resources and programs so they don’t fall through the cracks, said Kay Griffin, campus freshman experience manager at Christiana.

The position, created this year, aims to help charter retention efforts by building relationships with students and ensuring that “new scholars feel the same support as returning scholars,” Griffin said.

She meets one-on-one with new students to discuss behavior, attendance and report cards, connects them to resources and programs available to them, organizes monthly group meetings with new scholars and builds relationships with parents.

“The first year at a new school is critical,” Griffin said. “We want to make sure the relationships they build are strong.”

Griffin, who has worked at the school for a decade, understands how vital these supports are for students and parents. In 2016, she lost her fiancé to gun violence just as her son was moving from eighth grade to charter school. The loss hit Griffin and her son hard, who she described as being in a “dark place”.

She recalls the charter school staff being intentional with her support, “pouring into him” during a difficult time.

“We can’t afford to fail with these kids,” Griffin said. “We want them to succeed every step of the way.”

​​Mauricio Peña is a reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering K-12 schools. Contact Mauricio at [email protected].

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