Lighthouse peer jury provides alternatives

A Lighthouse College Prep Academy freshman sat before a jury of his peers.

In his first semester at the high school, he has earned no credits and has a grade point average of zero. He’s been suspended for fighting and other issues.

School districts use out-of-school suspensions to punish students. Suspensions also alert parents there is a discipline problem at school. However, educators say the unintended consequence is students deteriorate academically and sometimes get into more trouble because they have time on their hands.

Lighthouse is trying a new approach. The charter school began participating in a program called “Restorative Approach Practices” last year, which reduced the number of suspensions. Administrators said the numbers dropped from 1,040 in the 2013-14 school year to 260 in the 2014-15 school year. This year, they expect a further reduction.

As part of the Restorative Approach, school administrators have created a Restorative Approach Practices — or RAP — jury composed of nearly 20 student scholars who will serve as peer jurors to hear disciplinary matters and work through solutions to help the student avoid future suspensions.

In addition, the RAP students also will visit the other two Lighthouse Academies in Gary and East Chicago to talk to younger students about resolving conflicts, working together and other challenges. Lighthouse College Prep has about 750 students in eighth to 12th grades.

The peer jury comes up with different ways to support the student such as working with a tutor, working with a mentor and eliminating distractions.

This week, the peer jury listened to the challenges this student has faced, including recently losing his father.

Junior Nikala McKinney said she wanted to let the student know other people also face issues.

“I wanted him to know that other kids have also faced challenges,” she said. “We’ve had our moments where we didn’t want to do the work, didn’t want to take the test and just didn’t want to do anything.”

Junior Medina Winoska, 16, said she personally knows this student.

“I wanted him to know we are here for him,” she said.

“He is not the only person going through things. A lot of people in this school have had hardships. … We tell them, ‘Yes, you messed up but it’s not the end of the world.'”

On Friday, McKinney was one of the scholars visiting younger students at Lighthouse Academies.

“It’s a test run. We’re going to hang out with them and talk to them about their work and their behavior,” she said. “We’ll act as big brothers and sisters to the younger kids.”

Quincy Taylor, assistant director of school culture, and Vincent Brown both work with the culture program and students who have had problems.

“We’re trying to build community in this school. We don’t want to expel them,” he said. “It’s one thing for an adult to keep telling you ‘you have to change, we support you,’ but it’s a whole different level when your peers actually support you.”

Source: Northwest Indiana Times, Carmen McCollum