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Catalyst Chicago features ongoing restorative justice work of Mansfield Institute and Roosevelt students at Morrill Elementary School

Posted: 06/21/2012

Below is a short excerpt from the June 18 edition of Catalyst Chicago.The entire article and a pdf of the issue, featuring photos at Morrill, is published at: http://www.catalyst-chicago.org/issues/2012/06/experiencing-trauma

By Sara Karp

Like so many schools in rough Chicago communities, a web of violence seems to surround Morrill Elementary. In early April, violence came to the school’s door, almost literally: A 7- year-old was wounded by random gunfire on the porch of the house across the street from the old brick school.

Principal Michael Beyer says he went to the house the next day and another child was outside playing, just steps away from a dried blood stain.

The shooting victim was supposed to return to school two weeks later, but the girl was afraid to go outside, so the counselor arranged to have someone cross the street with the child and bring her into the building.

Still, the school found it hard to figure out exactly how else to respond to the incident. The girl had just transferred into the school two weeks before, and few students even knew her.

When asked if they wanted to talk about the incident with a counselor, no students took the opportunity. At a community meeting, parents and residents said only that they wanted more security around the school. Beyer says he renewed his request for more cameras, but high schools have first priority. Meanwhile, the anti-violence group CeaseFire convinced Beyer to open up the gym in the evening for teenagers.

Beyer, who came to the school last August, has sought out ways to give students an outlet to talk about what is happening in their lives. He brought in the Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation, an organization that is part of Roosevelt University, to run peace circles so students could talk about and resolve conflict. The Mansfield Institute brought in student counselors from Roosevelt to run small groups for students, and also stationed a VISTA volunteer at the school to coordinate services.

Beyer’s social worker also took advantage of an Illinois Violence Prevention Authority program that pays for a school-based counselor two days a week. (The program is offered in a handful of schools in 18 Chicago neighborhoods.)

But getting children the right therapeutic help is not easy.

One day in mid-April, in a small room, the eyes of four adults are bearing down on Nathan, a chubby 3rd-grader with pointy ears who inexplicably began thrashing his friend in the bathroom. Usually, peace circles involve more than one student, but Nathan’s teacher sent him alone. (Note: For privacy reasons, Nathan’s real name is not being used.)

All peace circles open up with an ice-breaker. At Morrill, students choose an object from a basket. Nathan picks a sponge shaped as the letter “N”. He is supposed say why he picked the object, but refuses at first, shrugging his shoulders. Eventually, he explains that he picked the sponge because his name starts with that letter.

Those in the group then take turns talking about what upsets them. Nancy Michaels, associate director of the Mansfield Institute, says she gets upset when people judge her.

Nathan stares at the floor, then the wall, then the ceiling. When he gets a turn, he says, “I get upset when people talk about my mom. I get upset especially because she’s dead. That is why I get angry.”

“I would get upset too,” says Michaels, sharing that her mother died also. “It would be a challenge to figure out the best way to react.”

But peace circles are only designed to give students a better way to deal with conflict, not dig too deep into traumatic events. Greg Fuller, a Roosevelt student, tells Nathan that he should not respond by hitting. “If you can’t ignore it, then you have to figure out something else to do,” Fuller says.

Nathan says he knows he should tell the teacher, and try to walk it off when he feels anger rising inside of him. He seems relieved when Michaels says she is going to take him back to class, pull the classmate he hit into the hallway and have Nathan apologize. If the conflict isn’t resolved, Nathan says he is sure to be beaten up after school by the classmate’s older brother.

Afterward, Michaels says Nathan seemed to be saying what everyone wanted to hear. “He has heard it before,” Michaels says.

Fuller, who volunteers in the classroom, notes that Nathan is being raised by his father, who doesn’t seem to be able or willing to deal with the boy’s emotional issues.