Two Years After Student’s Murder, Peace Taking Over at Fenger Academy
Mark Brown, Sun Times, 3/23/2012
Geneva Harris, a bubbly 17-year-old chatterbox with big glasses and a bigger smile, presided over a ceremonial Balloon Release for Peace at her high school last week.
First, there was the reading of a peace poem, then everybody flashed a peace sign and finally came a moment of silence before each of about 75 students and staffers sent a red or green balloon skyward as a climax to what they called Peace Week.
It was the sort of corny, idealistic stuff that high school kids everywhere have been doing in the name of peace as long as I can remember.
But this wasn’t just anywhere. This was Fenger Academy, a neighborhood public high school still working to overcome a less than peaceful reputation.
So take it from Harris, who was just a freshman when her classmate Derrion Albert was infamously beaten to death in the street after school in September 2009: This is a changed place. A peaceful place.
“A lot of these smiling faces you see were not once smiling,” Harris told me. “Fenger has become beautiful.”
When a school is on edge, you can feel it. Everybody is looking over their shoulder. The tension becomes a vibe that spreads infectiously through the halls — hanging in the air ready for the slightest spark to unleash an explosion of temper.
Fenger is not like that these days.
Those who spend time in the school regularly tell me Principal Elizabeth Dozier and her Culture and Climate Coordinator Robert Spicer (you and I would think of him as the dean) have helped create an atmosphere that is both disciplined and relaxed.
From the minute you walk in the door you see this is a school with a clear expectation students will be where they’re supposed to be, doing what they’re supposed to do, yet they’re still breathing easy and enjoying themselves.
Fenger students say this has a lot to do with programs and policies that entrust them to solve problems for themselves — from a peer jury that substitutes for traditional disciplinary measures to a new Peace and Leadership Council that is grooming student leaders to spread nonviolent approaches to conflict resolution.
Instead of adding to the drama, student leaders are taught to report budding disputes between classmates before they escalate or step in personally to persuade fellow students to walk away or apologize. In other words, they are putting into practice the types of simple approaches that most of us use in our everyday lives to resolve conflict, but which were nowhere in evidence the day Derrion was killed.
Rather than zero tolerance, Fenger practices restorative justice. Instead of going to the dean’s office when they get in trouble, students are sent to the “Peace Room.” It’s all part of changing the culture.
Harris, who is involved with both the Fenger peer jury and the peace council, says she wasn’t always on a path to become a student leader. But something clicked after the “bad negativity” following Albert’s death.
“I refuse to let another student go down without trying,” she said.
I sat for a while Thursday with Harris and other members of the peace council, a program of the Mikva Challenge. The council is open to all students at the school. Twenty participate regularly in the twice-weekly after-school meetings.
As school officials explained, “Peace is for everybody. Why should it just be for the honor students?” said Tavhaniq Wyer, 16, who composed the lovely peace poem.
I always appreciate schools that have enough confidence in what they’re doing to let the kids do the talking.
This is not to overlook that peace and safety remains a work in progress for Fenger, especially as it relates to the surrounding Roseland neighborhood.
“You still know you have to watch yourself, but it’s not a 24-hour thing,” said Derious Smith, 18, who has seen the evolution.
To help school officials see what students see, the peace council produced a safe passage map of the area around the school, highlighting both safe routes and locations students still view as trouble spots.
For Peace Week, students tied ribbons on trees around the perimeter of campus to designate a Peace Zone where students can be assured they are safe. The goal is to expand the ribbons outward into the surrounding community in the coming years.
As I left the school to return to the car, Geneva and Derious were up ahead walking home. They turned and waved, smiling and relaxed, spreading peace as they went.
Originally published here.