OP/ED: Payton must fix its restorative justice system

By Alexis Park, Copy Editor

Payton resumed a hybrid setting in the 2020-121 school year. This year, Payton is fully back in-person.

A week after Ms. Fareeda Shabazz was introduced to the community as Payton’s new interim principal, she addressed a racially discriminatory incident that occurred on campus through a school-wide email. In the email, Principal Shabazz addressed the importance of acknowledging this incident, but did not disclose any names nor further details of the incident. “In response to this incident, we will follow CPS policy and issue appropriate discipline,” said Shabazz. “Moreover, we will work with any impacted individuals to address this harm and create a safe space for healing.”

These incidents are not uncharted territory for the Payton community. At the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year, former principal Melissa Resh addressed the community regarding similar incidents. In Ms. Resh’s email, two incidents were addressed: Racist comments that were shouted by “Google bombers” in Payton classrooms and a student, who believed they were muted, saying the n-word. Ms. Resh said that the “Google Bombings” were being investigated by CPS, and the student who had caused the harm would be “supported with reflection, skill-building, and accountability conversations and interventions so that the individual can repair harm they have caused.”  

While Ms. Resh’s email mentioned Restorative Justice practices in addressing these incidents, Ms. Shabazz’s email mentioned discipline and a reference to CPS policy in dealing with the student. However, the enforcement of new policies have been questioned, as an instagram post on bipoc.payton regarding the incident, says: “It’s completely unfair how a white student is allowed to threaten and say racial slurs and only get away with not participating in [one] school game.” 

Restorative Justice is a practice rooted in the reparation of the community after harm is done. Following an incident, Restorative Practices will center on discussion and use methods such as talking circles and creating meetings between individuals involved, as well as creating an understanding between the person who caused the harm and the person who has been harmed. These practices were introduced as a method of resolving conflict, and allowing a chance for the individual who has caused harm to learn and repair the damage.  

However, the Restorative Justice System has been consistently criticized as letting students get by with identity-based harm with just a “slap on the wrist”, and revisions to the system haves been recommended by various students and parents. Any updated procedures on the system have yet to be shared with the community, but considering the fact that Payton is currently adjusting to their newest administration, updating policies and creating a stable system may take a while.

CPS first replaced their zero-tolerance policies with the Restorative Justice System in 2006, with the hope of decreasing the number of suspensions, which were at an all time high while the policy was enforced. These suspensions stemmed from the fact that the system disproportionately affected people of color. According to the Illinois State Board of Education, African American boys were the most impacted category. More on this subject can be found here.

Another hope for the Restorative Justice Practices was aimed at the person who caused the harm. Students who were punished according to the zero-tolerance policy were socially isolated and many, unable to cope, would transfer. Allowing for anonymity when incidents would occur, and avoiding suspension for the individual, would allow for social recovery and reparation. 

However, depending on the severity of the incident, this aspect of the system would be insensitive to the person who has been harmed. If both of the individuals involved share a class, club activity, or a sports program together, more harm may be inflicted, and this would also create an uncomfortable situation for the person who has been harmed, as well as their peers. Although suspensions and expulsion from activities or classes have been banned, mandating leaves of absences from clubs and sports, and having the person who caused the harm to continue classwork a comfortable distance from the person who they’ve hurt, would assure the person who has been harmed that no such incident will happen again during their time at Payton. Anonymity can still be contained under these measures, and the possibility of restorative practices can still be preserved. 

This article is not a critique, nor bringing blame to any person/organization, but is meant to bring attention to the aspects of the system that have failed us. Payton follows a rigorous course, and the workload is a challenge for the educators and their students, especially as school has resumed to be fully back in person. Therefore, a strict implementation of the Restorative Justice system would be difficult to maintain in Payton, as rebuilding relationships and following discussion based procedure takes more time and effort than a simple suspension.

Amidst controversy at the end of last year, Payton students became more involved in all aspects of school: attending nightly LSC meetings, joining the Payton budget committee, and collaborating further with the administration and faculty. Therefore, it is recommended that in this aspect too, students are not only listened to, but referred to. As last year demonstrated, students are eager to be involved in the community, and can make many significant contributions. Referring to students consistently will also ensure that many Payton students will be made aware of the procedure of dealing with identity based harm. A vague idea of the procedure is not enough: knowing the procedure, or having other students to refer to for the information, will make students feel much more comfortable when needing to report an incident or such. 

There is no perfect system, and there will always be some uncertainty from any policies that are decided upon. However, it is clear that if Restorative Justice continues to be enforced at Payton, the practice should not be used as an excuse for ignorance. Varying levels of severity in incidents have occurred at Payton, and aspects of the consistency of the harm, to whom and to how many the harm has been inflicted upon, and the action of harm itself should all be considered. Ignorance is no longer an option, precedents must be established, and the pattern of identity-based harm cannot continue any longer.  

Many at Payton have heard the same “Our hands are tied, and unfortunately, nothing can be done” speech, and especially during “unprecedented times”, the phrase had worn itself out. In the next few years to come, a new hope for Payton should be emphasized: A hope that students can feel comfortable in their own school, and feel safe knowing that if harm is caused, it will be addressed swiftly and properly. 

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