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School District 202 has seen a steady reduction in the use of suspensions to address student behavior problems over the past three years. This is in part due to the use of disciplinary alternatives and early interventions in potentially problematic situations, according to a report presented to the School Board on June 25.
“One of our directives was to see kids in class as much as possible,” said Board president Mark Metz. “This is a positive direction and in keeping with what the Board has asked for.”
Both the number of suspensions and the number of students suspended have decreased. In 2009-2010 there were 1,503 suspensions and 470 students suspended, compared to 1,097 suspensions and 323 students in 2011-2012. Dr. Carrie Livingston, senior research associate, said that there had been a decrease in suspensions and students suspended, even though the overall population at the District had increased from 2,891 in 2009-2010 to 2,974 in 2011-2012.
In addition, as has been the case historically, suspension is relatively uncommon event for most students at Evanston Township High School. In 2011-12, only 11 percent of students received a suspension, and 41 percent of those who were suspended received only one suspension.
Board member Scott Rochelle commented about a couple of the disciplinary categories which had seen sizable reductions since the 2010-11 school year. He asked if the reduction in suspensions for tardiness or missing detention (140 to 17) was an effect of Wildkit Academy, a Saturday academic support program which students can attend in order to clear detentions.
Assistant Superintendent Oscar Hawthorne acknowledged the impact of Wildkit Academy but also credited teachers with motivating students to be in class on time. Vernon Clark, associate principal of Student Services, also said that the deans were working hard to ensure that students served their “Wednesday and Saturday detentions” so that they would not accrue enough to warrant a suspension.
Mr. Rochelle also commented about the reduction in suspensions for fighting (143 to 77). Mr. Clark said that there have been fewer fights, no gang activity and more use of restorative justice alternatives.
“Students play a strong role in sharing what they hear,” added Mr. Hawthorne. “They don’t want to see their friend get suspended. …We can deal with it before it erupts.”
Board member Jonathan Baum said, “It’s hard for us to know from these numbers if behavior has declined or if punishments have declined. By definition, if you’re using alternatives to suspension” then suspensions will have declined. He applauded the reduction, but said he was interested in learning more about the incidents of actual problem behaviors.
Mr. Hawthorne said that information could be provided about fighting incidents but other “infractions would be difficult.” Mr. Clark said that he would consult with the information services department to determine if some data could be retrieved to help answer the question.
Despite this positive news, the statistics also revealed the continuing disparity in the number of African American students receiving suspensions relative to their representation in the population at ETHS. Of the 1,097 suspensions imposed in the 2011-12 school year, 70.7 percent were served by black students and 62.2 percent of students suspended were black. Black students make up only 36.3 percent of the student population.
Mr. Metz asked if administrators could provide an explanation for the disparity and what could be done about it.
“It’s a national issue,” replied Mr. Hawthorne. “It’s more likely for African American males to be disciplined.” He said that teachers at ETHS have been “involved with training … on how to respond to students … with different ways to approach the behaviors … we’re making positive connections with students and homes.”
Mr. Clark said part of next year’s institute day will focus on helping teachers with classroom management related to this disparity.
Mr. Metz commented that the racial disparity was particularly noticeable in the category labeled “inappropriate behavior” which Board members have consistently found concerning because of its “ambiguity”. Mr. Hawthorne gave Board members a list of “suspendable” infractions, such as “defiance of authority,” “improper use of car,” “offense to staff,” and “horseplay” which underlie the “inappropriate behavior” category in order to provide further clarity.
In a separate conversation with the RoundTable, Mr. Hawthorne said that the overall category of “inappropriate behavior” had been maintained for comparison purposes, even though the particular infraction “inappropriate behavior” is no longer considered a “suspendable” offense, according to the ETHS student handbook, The Pilot, a circumstance he acknowledged could be confusing.
Mr. Metz encouraged future examination of the disparity. “We always want to look at these issues through our equity and excellence lens,” he said.
Mr. Baum also encouraged defining the subcategories more clearly. He remarked that although what the category “improper use of a car” entailed was “pretty clear,” others, such as “offense to staff” and “defiance of authority” were more ambiguous a situation that he thought, given his experience in civil rights cases, might increase the District’s “exposure to lawsuits” in the area of “racial disparity.”