Parent trains angry students to be peacemakers

  • By Ashley Johnson
  • Medill News Service
  • August 02, 2007 @ 8:47 AM

Lynn Morton just couldn't understand how so many young kids could get suspended at her son's Chicago elementary school.

She noticed a pattern - children acted up, got suspended, spent three days at home - and then returned to the classroom with the same problems.

And no one ever seemed to ask what led to the disruption in the first place.

So, Morton, 37, came up with a solution: a Peace Center.

Going on its third year, the Austin Peace Center has changed the atmosphere at Milton Brunson Math & Science Specialty Elementary School on the West Side by helping youth address the root causes of their anger.

Instead of kicking kids out of the class, teachers are encouraged to send them to the Peace Center, where they will sit in a circle and discuss their behavior with other students, ultimately learning how to calmly handle conflict.

"Everything that's said in the circle stays in the circle," Morton said. "I am very very strict on that because I have to have an environment of safety."

For her, the Peace Center is part of a larger mission to save youth and help women of all ages achieve their full potential.

"I want to see a whole culture shift," Morton said while sitting in a Brunson classroom. "I firmly believe that the atmosphere you create on the inside should be so strong that it outweighs the atmosphere that (students) come from."

She saw part of her mission realized in June, when the Chicago Board of Education approved a revised Student Code of Conduct that emphasizes age-appropriate discipline and restorative justice instead of suspensions.

When Morton came up with the idea for a Peace Center, she approached the director of Community Organizing and Family Issues and they drafted a proposal for state funding.

Morton initially trained 12 peacemakers - five or six are on hand each school day, she said.

Once students are referred to the Peace Center, they get a personal peacemaker who meets with them and their families individually.

In addition, they participate in group discussions with up to seven students twice a week. Boys and girls come on different days.

Beyond Brunson, Morton helped develop recommendations for the revised school code as co-chair of Parents Organized to Win, Educate and Renew-Policy Action Council. Parents and educators refer to the group as POWER-PAC.

Kellie Magnuson, citywide organizer for Community Organizing and Family Issues, which helped start the Peace Center, said Morton has challenged the city to be proactive about stopping the criminalization of youth.

"I think Lynn and Nelly [Torres] and the rest of the POWER PAC-ers have done a really great job at voicing those concerns and helping Chicago Public Schools see parents of color and low-income parents in a different way, as part of the solution rather than the source of the problem," Magnuson said.

"They operate out of a sense of hope of what the city can be and should be," she added.

Morton was born in Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood and moved to the Austin neighborhood as a child.

She started her career as an accountant but left corporate America around the time she had her son, Stephan, now 12 years old.

It's not surprising that Morton found her calling in the school system and community service. Growing up, she saw her grandmother open her home-and refrigerator-to neighborhood kids.

"Everybody on Gladys and Springfield [Avenues] called my grandmother 'Mama Lily,'" Morton recalled.

Her mother carried on the tradition as a classroom and lunchroom aide in Chicago Public Schools. She also sat on a Local School Council, and urged a pregnant Morton to tattend the meetings.

Although Morton said she had a strong support network, being pregnant and unmarried made her sensitive to what single mothers go through.

She began crafting a program for women of every age that addresses self-esteem, goals, romantic relationships and body image. The curriculum is called "Fearfully and Wonderfully Made."

A licensed minister, Morton named the lesson after her favorite Bible verse, Psalm 139:14, "I will praise the Lord because I am fearfully and wonderfully made."

She is now working on her next venture: creating a shelter for women where they can catch up on lost school years and be tutored alongside their children.

Morton transferred her son out of Brunson in the third grade, so he could benefit from the music-based curriculum at the Choir Academy. But she has no plans to leave the school herself.

"This is home," she said firmly. "And I believe that you should take care of home."

Success stories abound at the Peace Center, but Morton admitted feeling discouraged sometimes: "There are days when I have to question am I really helping? It seems like the problems are so big."

She paused to reflect on her grandmother, who used to sing the gospel song "Have I given anything today?" and then concluded, "Yes, what I do matters."

And not just to students.

Last year, Assistant Principal Shenann Finley-Jones watched as Morton turned around the behavior of two girls who were "angry at the world" when they arrived at Brunson to repeat a grade. The path to change was the Peace Center.

Finley-Jones appreciates having disciplinary options besides suspensions. "Sometimes, we don't want to go that route because we know what they're going home to," she said.

She explained that suspended students often have no supervision and nothing productive to do while at home for the day.

Morton's work also has relieved the burden on educators such as Finley-Jones who struggle to be administrators, mentors and mothers to their students.

Kids are so attached that some don't want to move on once they have mastered peace.

With a smile, Morton recalled how a girl reacted when she told her she had finished the peace program. "She said 'OK, I know what, I'm going to act up so I can get a referral.'"

But even those who never go into the Peace Center benefit from Morton's presence. She's in the hallways, ready to give a hug to anyone who needs extra attention.

"They just walk up and walk into my arms and they go off and have a productive day," Morton said. "When you embrace them, you can feel a release. If I wasn't here, whatever was bothering them, they would have had to walk around with that all day."