Black students at Evanston Township High School are suspended from school in significantly disproportionate numbers to their representation in the school population. In addition, 166 students had three or more suspension incidents and 23 students accumulated at least ten suspensions in the 2009-2010 school year, according to a report presented to the District 202 School Board on Oct. 25.

The report was requested in September in response to a student achievement report that documented no decrease in suspensions in the District for the 2009-2010 school year over the number the year before, despite a School Board goal to reduce suspensions by 10 percent.

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon addressed the lack of improvement in suspension numbers. He said of the 470 students who received a suspension last year, 192 were suspended only once and 112 were suspended twice and some of those suspensions were in-school suspensions and were only for one day.

“Suspensions appear to serve as a deterrent [to misbehavior] in the vast majority of students,” he said. But he also said that that was not true for all students, given the recidivism of some.

The administration would like to see a reduction in the number of suspensions, Dr. Witherspoon said. “We want to have students in class as much as possible.”

In their written report to the Board, Dr. Judith Levinson, director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment and Oscar Hawthorne, assistant superintendent/principal, said the tracking system should be improved: “Based on this more detailed analysis of the suspension/discipline data … we believe we need to clarify coding/recording procedures and set up a system that allows us to pull these data throughout the year to more closely monitor suspensions.”

Board members appeared to be incensed about the lack of improvement in the overall numbers of suspensions and in the disproportionate number of minority students who were disciplined. Overall, of the 470 students who received at least one suspension last year, 312 (66 percent) of them were black. Black students also had a disproportionate number of suspension incidents. There was a total of 1,503 suspensions in the 2009-2010 school year, and black students comprised 1,135 or 76% of those. According to the Illinois State Board of Education district report card, black students comprised 34.3 percent of ETHS students.

“There is not a report that has disturbed me more than this one. We are in the business of educating and graduating students to succeed. If we have an equity issue in this school, it’s staring us right in the face,” said Board member Gretchen Livingston. “I am pretty appalled.” With regard to the administration’s concern about coding and recording procedures, Ms. Livingston said, “We need to act more data-driven and construct a better system for capturing this.”

In addition to agreeing about the existence of racial disparity in suspensions, Board member Deborah Graham questioned the definition of some of the reasons given for suspension. “What is ‘defiance of authority’ [208 incidents]?”, she asked. “What is ‘inappropriate behavior’ [349 incidents]? There is so much room for subjectivity . . . that can lend itself to issues involving race.”

Several Board members questioned the value of suspending someone who had failed to serve a detention or a suspension [211 incidents], was truant [14 incidents] or tardy [107 incidents].

The source of the suspensions was questioned. “I thought we were going to look at teachers – who sends which students to get detentions,” Board member Martha Burns said. “We’re not doing the things I thought we were going to do,” she said, referring to the review of information.

Mr. Hawthorne said the deans receive referrals, examine the facts of the case and then decide whether or not to impose a suspension.

“The deans are in the position of enforcing policy. The dean is going to follow step one, two, three,” Mr. Hawthorne said. “We have due process. If we’re not interested in suspending students for non-violent acts [we need to change our policies].”

“We need to put a real focus on why we are taking kids out of class,” said Board member Mark Metz. “Unless they are a danger to others or impacting the ability of others to learn, they should be in the classroom. What we do here is teach. We have to be more creative to find consequences for unacceptable behavior.”

Mr. Hawthorne agreed, but said that options like community service presented a problem “because of liability.” He said that the District has alternatives to suspension that are already in use and is working on developing others.

Board members Mary Wilkerson and Gretchen Livingston called for more aggressive monitoring and reporting of progress in light of the Board’s goals.

“This [reduction of suspensions] has been a goal for two or three years,” said Ms. Wilkerson. She pointed out that the coding issue had not been raised before.

Ms. Livingston, who had abstained from voting on the goals when they were first approved last year admonished her colleagues and the administration for “not establishing adequate benchmarks” and said they had not acted in “an accountable fashion with regard to goals.”

President Rachel Hayman called for a broader report about discipline. “The picture through these numbers is dismal,” she said. “We don’t have a sense how students are being treated.”