By Julia Steiny
Regina Winkfield, Principal of E-Cubed Academy in Providence, went into a minor tailspin when district budget cuts eliminated her Student Resource Officer (SRO). Of course, SROs are a double-edged sword. As police officers, carrying guns, they’re sworn to arrest anyone engaged in illegal doings, including fighting. SROs contributed to America’s soaring suspension and expulsion rates. But even if her SRO wasn’t a great solution, Winkfield wondered how she’d cope with the rough student behavior besetting her urban high school minus that help.
The answer to that question turned out to be the kids themselves. But not according to any intentional strategy. While learning about civic engagement and advocacy, E-Cubed students found their “voice.” As Junior Roxanne says, “everyone is getting along better because we have more voice now. We’re empowered to talk to the adults.”
About four years ago, an opportunity quietly emerged. Two Brown University students, Scott Warren and Anna Ninan, invented what is now the national organization Generation Citizen (GC). Distressed by young people’s bad rap for disengagement from their communities and from political life in general, the civic-minded pair had an idea: teach teens how governments make decisions by helping them work on their own community or social issues. They recruited college-student volunteers, called “Democracy Coaches,” to weave civics lessons into discussions of what specific community improvement could be accomplished and how.
Twice a week, a Democracy Coach worked in John Healy’s history class.
The City of Providence had never painted crosswalks on the busy streets surrounding the relatively-new school building. The school community had complained for years. Crosswalks were a clear, modest ask. With instruction, students understood the relevant powers that be and managed to guilt the City into doing its duty.
Winkfield rolls her eyes musing that kids accomplished what adults had failed to do, and not for want of trying. That day, watching those workers paint white lines, a light lit for her. Supporting students’ voice in practical matters not only got things done, but got kids engaged. “After all,” she says gesturing dramatically at the school’s mission statement, “we’re supposed to be a student-centered community.”
In the fall of 2013, she dropped hints to students about tackling their high suspension rate. The kids’ research found that in 2011-2012, their small school of fewer than 400 students had nearly 300 suspensions, or an average of 1.65 suspensions every day — the third highest rate in the district.
I spoke with a group of these newly-engaged citizens about their accomplishments. Now a University of Rhode Island student, Garren Jansezian took time off his spring break to crow with his younger colleagues about their impact on the school. “We wanted to know what the implications were of those suspensions. Was there a cycle of delinquency? Were the problems of home being carried into the school? We wanted to work on a system that would help [troubled] students stay in school, but be accountable to themselves and the community.”
Furthermore, after surveying their fellow students, they found that many had been suspended, mostly for petty vandalism, class disruptions, or tardiness. Really?
Surely there were the alternatives.
The Democracy Coach gave them articles about other schools using restorative justice and peer mediation programs. The students settled on starting a peer jury system designed to interrupt the zero-tolerance approach enshrined in the district’s Code of Conduct. They developed a research paper, a process and several forms.
With their respectful voices and advocacy skills, they sold the idea to the principal, the faculty, and their fellow students. They got the green light, but more impressively, 30 students applied to be peer jurors.
Angela, now a senior, took one of the first cases. “(The student) had talked back to a teacher. We all knew he’d done what he’d done. Guilt was already determined. But then the student was allowed to tell his side of the story. We determined that the offense was not so severe that he should go to Ms. Winkfield for suspension. Then we told him what he had to do to make it right. At the end he said thank you. I liked helping my peers not get suspended.”
In another case, a kid who trashed the bathroom avoided suspension by working with the janitor to get it cleaned up. Yes, he was reluctant and resentful at first, but sucked it up and let himself be held accountable. As Jansezian says, “Second chances are powerful things.”
Winfield concludes, “We needed a paradigm shift. It’s easy to suspend a student, but it’s a lot harder to change a mindset. For the students, it’s not about snitching, it’s about working together.”
Diana, a senior, says, “My mindset changed. I look at people who do bad things over and over again, people I used to think of as bad. Now I think, what’s happening to them that they’re getting in trouble?”
Fatoumata, a Junior, says: “Voice is everything. No matter how small, your voice has a deep meaning.”
For the record, they’ve only had one fight this year and a handful of suspensions. With great pleasure, the students I spoke with took full credit for this minor miracle. The adults beamed at them.