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The District 202 School Board on June 27 reviewed the latest information about suspensions at Evanston Township High School. Last fall that topic generated significant consternation when a similar report showed a lack of progress in the Board goal of reducing suspensions and revealed significant racial disparities in students being suspended.

The latest report states that the number of suspensions and the number of students suspended has decreased since the 2009-10 school year. Black students, however, still make up a disproportionate number of suspended students relative to their representation in the student population. And although receiving a suspension appears to have some negative impact on grades, administrators cautioned that more longitudinal analysis was necessary to make conclusive statements.

There has been a change in the categories of infractions that receive a suspension as punishment. For example, the categories “defiance of authority” or “disruptive act” are not used in the 2010-11 report.

Superintendent Eric Witherspoon explained this change to the RoundTable:

“In response to the School Board’s request for some different nomenclature, our principal, associate principal and deans identified the categories that would more specifically describe infractions. Some categories were dropped because they were broad and the behavior could be more specifically identified in another existing category.”

One category, “inappropriate behavior,” to which the Board had objected in the past as being vague and open to “subjective decision making,” was still included in the 2010-11 report, but Assistant Superintendent/Principal Oscar Hawthorne said next year it will not be used. “‘Reckless endangerment’ will now be the descriptor for student infractions that endanger the well-being and safety of self and others,” according to the report.

There were 1,262 suspensions last year, compared to 1,503 in 2009-2010; a total of 415 students were suspended at least once last year, compared to 470 in 2009-2010. But although the 2010-11 Opening of School Report counts only 31.7 percent of the ETHS student population as black, black students represented 67 percent of the suspensions and 63 percent of the students suspended. In addition, 144 students had three or more suspension incidents, and 25 students had 10 or more suspensions during the 2010-11 school year.

“The report is a result of evolved thinking in terms of what we would like to see in measuring our progress when we have conversations about student discipline,” said Mr. Hawthorne. “We believe that students should be in school as much as possible,” he added.

Effect on Grades

Dr. Carrie Livingston, senior research associate, presented an analysis of the relationship between suspensions and poor grades. To determine if there was an effect on grades, 177 students who received a suspension during the first quarter of the school year were followed throughout the year. During the year, 28 of those students had left ETHS, were moved off campus or had graduated. By second semester, 74 percent of students who had received a suspension in the first quarter had at least one D/F.
That number represents a slight decrease from the 81 percent of students receiving a suspension who had at least one D/F in the first semester. However, the report acknowledged that “a quarter to quarter analysis is most likely not indicative of true change. Analyses of longitudinal trends and changes over time will provide a more accurate reflection of change.”

Board member Gretchen Livingston (no relationship to Dr. Livingston) asked if students were being suspended because of behaviors stemming from a lack of success in school or if they were getting bad grades because they had been suspended.

“You’re right on both counts,” responded Mr. Hawthorne. “When students become frustrated in school, sometimes they will act out. By the same token, if students have dug a hole for themselves and they don’t see a benefit to being in school, they are more likely to be suspended again. The goal is to create culture where students want to be in school.”

Alternatives to Suspension

“Reducing suspension numbers through effective and meaningful alternatives to suspensions prompted the implementation of several programs,” stated the report. “Successful students are in class every day and engaged in learning. We realize that we will not completely negate the use of suspensions, but we will be able to minimize its usage.”

Several new initiatives were implemented this past year during second semester. These included The Moran Center (Violence Intervention Program, VIP), Positive Action Strategies, the Brotherhood Empowerment Program and the Intervention Advisory Team. Although they had only existed for a few months, these programs saved students approximately 140 days of suspension, administrators said.

The Moran Center program aims to provide “Evanston youth and their families with the tools to refrain from engaging in potentially delinquent behavior, the support to successfully emerge from a challenging situation, and the ability to return to the school environment as productive students contributing positively to the school community.”

Positive Action Strategies is a program that exposes students to “strategies that can help them make responsible and positive decisions.” The Brotherhood Empowerment Program focuses on addressing “the needs of all male students. Its participants … engage in a holistic approach to deal with issues that hinder their success.”

Other alternatives to suspension are also aimed at helping students stay in school. These include closed campus, extended detention, peer jury, restricted lunch, community service and social probation and Student Under the Influence program.

All these measures are used for infractions that previously would have been punished with a suspension. The use of these alternatives, administrators said, has been instrumental in reducing the number of suspensions.

Board member Jonathan Baum said the Intervention Advisory Team (IAT) could be particularly helpful to students with multiple suspensions. The IAT is a committee of administrators, teachers, counselors and social workers that reviews serious acts of misbehavior and makes recommendations to Mr. Hawthorne

“Students with three or more suspensions in a semester … have a real problem,” said Mr. Baum. He suggested that they might need particular attention akin to the Individual Education Plan (IEP) that is required for special education students and that the Intervention Advisory Team might be able to provide such a function.

Disparities in Suspensions Occurred in Other Groups

Three other groups of students were suspended in significantly greater numbers than their representation in the population: students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs), low-income students and reclassified students.

According to the suspension report, there were 463 incidents of suspension involving students with IEPs, representing 36.7% of the total number of suspensions for the year.  According to the Opening of School Report for 2010-2011, 13% of ETHS students had IEPs. 

In addition, there were 1,074 incidents of suspension of low income students, representing 85.1% of the total suspensions for the year.  Administrators have regularly stated over the past year that the percentage of students applying for free or reduced lunch at ETHS, which forms the basis of the calculation for low income students is somewhere between 40 and 47%. 

Finally, 202 suspension incidents, or 16%, involved reclassified students, those who have not passed enough credits to enable them to move ahead to the next grade with their class.  According to Dr. Judith Levinson, Director of Research, Evaluation and Assessment, reclassified students made up 7.7% of the ETHS population at the beginning of the 2010-2011 school year.

“I would really appreciate a summary of what kinds of supports we are providing for students who are low income because they seem to be disproportionately getting into trouble,” remarked Board member Deborah Graham. 

“That category (low income) doesn’t really tell us much,” said Assistant Superintendent/Principal Oscar Hawthorne. “Almost half of our students could be considered low income.  If you’re going to drill down to the problem, focusing on low income students really doesn’t help us.” 

Mr. Hawthorne explained that “knowing if they have an IEP really helps.  If they have an IEP they should have a behavior intervention plan.  You have a team of teachers and social workers who are prepared to assist students.  Maybe we look at a different setting for them.  There are options.”