Roosevelt University students and faculty are leading a letter-writing campaign to urge U.S. Senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk to combat violence by pushing for more counselors, not armed police, in Chicago schools.
More than 15 Roosevelt students, including 22-year-old psychology major Nathan Lustig, have been working to collect signatures from their classmates as well as their family and friends. They will deliver the signed letters to the senators sometime in mid-March.
The letters ask the senators to vote that any new federal money that will be part of a proposed gun-reform bill be used for restorative justice initiatives, such as more counselors in local schools, and not armed police officers as suggested by the National Rifle Association and President Barack Obama in his recent gun reform proposals.
The group also plans to lobby Chicago Public Schools in favor of the “Yes to Counselors, No to Cops” campaign, a coalition of community members and organizations in Chicago asking CPS to pass a resolution that would “state unequivocally that any new funding received from federal grants to improve school safety based on the president’s gun reform plan will be used to hire counselors, not cops,” according to the coalition’s website.
A university press release detailing Roosevelt’s campaign said a study released last year by the Justice Policy Institute showed that increased security measures like the hiring of more security guards and the installation of metal detectors and surveillance cameras in Colorado after the Columbine shooting only led to more arrests of youths for minor violations.
Lustig said although the campaign was partially inspired by the Newtown, Conn., tragedy, the issue of protecting youth in schools is not a new one, but it is, however, the first time Lustig has gotten actively involved with these issues. He said growing up with learning disabilities has made him appreciate how important it is to have a nurturing environment in public schools.
“I had adults in my life who were looking out for my best interests and provided programs that could cater to my learning needs,” said Lustig, who will graduate in May. “I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t have people who genuinely cared about my future.”
He added that, so far, the student reaction to the letter-writing campaign has been mostly positive and that the faculty is excited to see students getting active in the issue of combating youth violence.
“There’s about four or five consistent people who have been picking up petitions, announcing [the campaign] in their classes, going to family, running around the building, bothering teachers,” Lustig said.
Since Lustig and his fellow students began the campaign the first week of February, the letter for Sen. Kirk has received 205 signatures and the letter for Sen. Durbin has received 252 signatures. The group also has an online petition that has 266 signatures. Lustig said the campaign is shooting for at least 1,000 signatures, if not more.
“With this campaign, we want to continue the conversation about the presence of police on public school campuses,” he said.
Nancy Michaels, associate director of Roosevelt’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice, said the campaign’s message is consistent with the school’s mission as a university with a focus on social justice, especially considering Roosevelt is in the heart of a city that continues to experience some of the worst gun violence in the country.
Nikita Stange, a former Roosevelt student and an Americorps Volunteers In Service to America with the Mansfield Institute, agreed with Michaels.
“We’re really here to help our students be agents of change,” Stange said. “They’re learning in the classroom, they’re involved in student organizations, and now they’re getting out into the community and seeing how these things really take shape and form in reality. By doing that our students become the next generation of leaders with this social justice mindset guiding them.”
Lustig said his group will continue to gather petitions and spread the word about the campaign until they can schedule a meeting with the senators next month. He plans on bringing as many students and community members as possible to the meeting to present their signed letters.
“We don’t really have a cap for the number of people,” Lustig said.
“It’s however many can fit in the senator’s office,” Michaels added.
The campaign is a joint project from Roosevelt’s Mansfield Institute for Social Justice and Transformation and Project NIA, a nonprofit organization that works to reduce youth incarceration rates and address issues of youth crime and violence.
Erin Vogel is a RedEye special contributor.
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