Last spring Evanston Township High School took its first steps in a deliberately different journey of conflict resolution. The results are a peer-mediation initiative that the youth participants have named “Kit Voice.” Kit Voice is a peer-jury system available to student offenders as an alternative to the traditional adult-administered punishment model that has been strong since the earliest days of public education. As parents, teachers and school administrators nationwide are grappling with high youth-violence statistics, ETHS has begun to test the model of “restorative justice.”

“Restorative justice isn’t about punishment or retribution,” said Christina Cortesi, ETHS Substance Abuse Prevention Coordinator and faculty sponsor of Kit Voice. “It’s about healing the damage done by the offending behavior and finding solutions that are meaningful to both the offender and the victim. Here at ETHS, it’s an alternative that students are offered if they have received a referral from a dean for less serious offenses, nonviolent ones.”

Ms. Cortesi, a social worker who started employment at the high school in fall of 2007, says restorative justice offers a process where offenders are held accountable and can make up for their actions, but also where respect, empathy and listening are key ingredients.

Frank Kaminski, director of public safety and former chief of Evanston’s police department, is one of the champions of restorative justice in schools. “I was familiar with the model through my police work and as part of Evanston’s Community Restorative Justice Committee,” he said. “I liked the idea because it’s a win-win system.”

Mr. Kaminski explained that the groundwork for the high school initiative began last spring with research about national and local programs, site visits to Chicago public high schools that have adopted restorative justice models; interviews and meetings with ETHS deans, social workers and the Evanston youth Council; recruitment of students as peer jurors; presentations by professionals who train communities in restorative justice strategies; and, eventually, hiring Ms. Cortesi to coordinate the program.

“Right now the peer juries are offered to category one offenders: those displaying disorderly behavior, smoking on the school premises, acting disrespectful to teachers, students cutting classes. … Ultimately, what we are aiming for is a peaceful environment and more youth leadership,” said Mr. Kaminski.

Youth leadership is the engine powering Kit Voice at ETHS. In the fall, student recruitment began through newsletters and home-based announcements, as well as through faculty referrals. Motivation for joining the initiative varied. Some students, such as senior Veronica Mendoza, volunteered because of an interest in a law career. A few students were motivated by frustration with the school’s response to discipline and behavior issues. Senior Rachel Trautvetter explained that she became involved because the previous spring a friend of hers had done her senior project on a restorative justice model for high schools and actually presented her project proposal to ETHS faculty.

The call for peer jurors netted a diverse group of approximately 25 students, and from the time the students signed on, they began shaping and defining the peer mediation program at their school. “We wanted a diverse group and definitely got one. We didn’t just want a group of so-called ‘good kids,’ said Marilyn Madden, assistant superintendent/principal. “We knew the program would be most effective if the peer juries had a real cross-section, including kids who’d had their own issues with conflict and authority.”

Part of the foundation for being a peer juror was an intense two days of training presented by Alternatives Inc., a Chicago agency with expertise in restorative justice. Christine Agaibi, a peer-mediator counselor and trainer for ETHS’s students, said that a good program is one that “is youth-led and youth-developed and that involves youth at every step.” She commended the ETHS participants and said, “They were amazingly advanced in their social-emotional development and very sophisticated in their grasp of the goals and strategies.” A testament to the students’ commitment, she said, was their willingness to forfeit school holidays for training.

The two eight-hour days of training included listening and empathy activities, role-playing, introduction to the peace circle format, mock cases and explanation of the important confidentiality pledge that is required of all parties in the restorative process. “The confidentiality requirement is essential, of course,” said Ms. Cortesi, who also serves as a peer-mediation counselor and trainer of the ETHS students. “I have been impressed by how seriously our students take this responsibility. Everyone gets it.”

During the peer-mediation process, both jurors and the referred student – in addition to an adult advisor and, sometimes, an involved teacher – sit in a circle formation to discuss all aspects of the incident and try to come to an equitable solution that gives the offender a chance to make up for wrongs done.

“The precedent for the peace circle in restorative justice proceedings is from Native American practices,” explained Erica Barton of the Evanston Police Department and a member of the recently formed Evanston Community Restorative Justice Committee.

Peace circles, sometimes called healing circles, set out to communicate equality by the configuration of the seating, and by the fact that all parties have the opportunity to state their perspective and feelings.

Despite excellent training and good support, peer juror Veronica Mendoza said she was nervous before her first circle. “It went well, though, and I think the referred student came away realizing things about the impact of his actions. Just like our trainer told us, we were able to create a feeling of trust between everyone involved.”

Another peer juror, Kayla Horwat, emphasized that often the offenders “aren’t trying to be bad.” She said, “I think it’s more that people often don’t even realize how their actions truly affect someone else.” Rachel Trautvetter concurred; “Sometimes we do things that just aren’t appropriate at school. Maybe we do them at home and get away with it but haven’t followed the rules at school.” Her positive experience with Kit Voice has motivated her to do her spring semester senior project on a start-up restorative justice initiative in the Evanston middle schools.

In an increasingly violent world, restorative justice is a model that is catching on. Juvenile justice systems around the country – and beyond – are increasingly using “conferencing” as a restorative justice practice for first offenders. “Offender, victim, family and community members sit in a circle,” said Erica Barton, “and try to resolve damage that has been done through a process that has a chance of healing. There’s someone in the circle who acts as a mentor and follows up to see that restitution has been accomplished.” The Evanston Police Department, Evanston’s Youth Coordinator, the Public Defender’s Office and Family Focus are four members of the Evanston Community Restorative Justice Committee which has been meeting for half a year, discussing ways to implement the peace-making practices throughout the City.

Lots of eyes will be on Kit Voice and the impact it has on the ETHS community. As experts Richard Bodine and Donna Crawford say in “The Handbook of Conflict Resolution Education,” their book about conflict resolution, “Schools must stop acting as though parents are sending them the wrong kids; they must stop wishing that if ‘better’ kids would just start showing up in our schools, everything would be OK.”

Judy Chiss

Judy Chiss has been a feature writer at the RoundTable since 2007 and especially enjoys writing about interesting happenings in the schools, as well as how our local not-for-profits impact the community....