On May 15, the District 65 School Board discussed student discipline. They explored whether there was a way to reduce the number of student suspensions, so students would not be pulled out of the classroom and lose valuable instructional time. This continued a discussion that began at the May 13 meeting of the Board’s Policy Committee, attended by six of the seven members of the Board.
Board President Tracy Quattrocki said she had asked that the issue be placed on the agendas of both the Policy Committee and the Board. She said the discussion followed up on work begun by Bonnie Lockhart when she was a member of the Board and spearheaded efforts to reduce the number of suspensions of African American students.
The data shows that suspensions are still disproportionately high for African American students, but the number has been reduced substantially in the last six years. Board members and administrators agreed that the District needs to find ways to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions still more and to address the underlying issues in a more global way.
The Policy on Suspensions
The Board’s policies prohibit specific conduct that is grouped into four categories for purposes of determining an appropriate consequence. Category one offenses are the least serious and includes behavior such as using a cell phone during school hours and cutting classes. Category four is the most serious and includes hitting a school employee and using a weapon. The more serious the offense, the more serious the consequence.
The discipline policy provides for a wide range of potential disciplinary measures. A student who has committed a Category II, III or IV offense may be given an out-of-school suspension. An out-of-school suspension is generally given only after other measures have failed to “attain satisfactory behavioral changes, or when specifically required by the nature of the problem,” says the Student Handbook.
Parents of students who have committed a Category II or III offense warranting suspension “are provided the option to participate in a District-wide family counseling program led by District 65 social workers and psychologists who have experience in addressing student behaviors (an alternative to suspension).” Families who accept this option are able to reduce one full day of suspension for each hour of family counseling.
The Alternative-to-Suspension Program was implemented at District 65 in the 2009-10 school year to reduce the number of days a student misses school due to out-of-school suspension. The model attempts to “build home-school connections to help parents/guardians support behavioral expectations” and to “allow school staff to be proactive in working with students to help directly teach skills that are associated with greater success in school,” says the District’s program description.
What the Data Shows
Laura Taira, chief information officer for the District, provided data about Major Office Discipline Referrals (MODRs), which are defined as “a discipline incident of such severity that administrative intervention is warranted.” The data show that there is an “overrepresentation” of three student subgroups receiving MODRs: African American students; students with a disability (e.g., those who have an Individual Education Plan, IEP); and students from a low-income household. For this school year up through May 13:
• 65% of the students disciplined are African American, even though approximately 27% of District 65’s enrollment is African American.
• 44% of the students disciplined have an IEP, even though approximately 12% of the District’s students have an IEP.
• 64% of the students disciplined are low-income, even though approximately 43% of the District’s students are from low-income households.
There were 161 suspensions so far this year through April 15, according to data provided by Ms. Taira. Of those, 146 (91%) were eligible for the alternative-to-suspension program. Of the 146, an alternative-to-suspension was offered only 81 times (56%). “The most often cited reasons for not offering an alternative-to-suspension were: it was a repeated offense, the seriousness of the incident and related circumstances warranted an out-of-school suspension, or the need for an immediate consequence.”
The data show that alternatives-to-suspension were offered at about the same rate to students, regardless of demographics, said Ms. Taira.
Of the 81 students who were offered an alternative-to-suspension, the parent or guardian declined 44 times (54%). “The reasons for not wanting ATS that parents shared include scheduling conflicts and the preference for an OSS [out-of-school suspension].”
Ms. Taira also presented data comparing the percentage of students in certain subgroups suspended by School District 65 with those suspended on a nationwide basis. The chart below shows the comparison broken out by grades K-5, and grades 6-8.
The sobering numbers that jumped out at School Board members were that 22.1% of all African American males in the District’s middle schools were suspended in the 2011-12 school year, and 19.4% of all students with an IEP were suspended during that school year.
While the percentages are high, the number of suspensions has been reduced substantially in the last six years, from 589 in 2006-07 to 338 in 2010-12. Board member Richard Rykhus pointed out that these declines have occurred during a period in which student enrollment has increased by 1,000 students, so the progress is better than depicted by the raw numbers.
Administrators said the decline is attributable to the fuller implementation of PBIS (Positive Behavior and Interventional Supports) and the implementation of the alternative-to -suspension program.
Addressing the Issue
Assistant Superintendent Susan Schultz said the suspension of a student has to be considered together with the right of other students to an appropriate learning environment. “What we have to do in the disciplinary process is figure out what is the consequence that will help that child so they can return to the classroom and behave in an appropriate way. Yet we still have to protect the learning environment for all kids.”
“If we take away that consequence [an out-of-school suspension], we are leaving that learning environment very vulnerable to ongoing repeated disruptions,” she said.
Ms. Quattrocki said, “I wonder if those are mutually exclusive. I think the alternative to suspension is such a good step toward keeping students in the classroom.” She said if a student is pulled out of the classroom for five to ten days, they will have difficulty catching up with the class. “It’s really a barrier to being able to achieve the academic success we want.”
Ms. Quattrocki said the District should reduce out-of-school suspensions by expanding the alternative-to-suspension program. She suggested the Board do this by both increasing the number of students who are provided the opportunity to participate in the program, and by encouraging more parents to participate in the program.
Administrators agreed with this approach. Ms. Shultz said “our goal” is to reduce the number of suspension days through the alternative- to-suspension program. “We are disappointed when parents don’t take up that option.”
Likewise, Joyce Bartz, director of special services, said, “You can see from our data we have very little recidivism. Parents are pleased with the process. This is a program we are delighted to expand.”
Ms. Bartz added that along with the alternatives-to-suspension program, the schools are doing “incredible work” with PBIS, several schools are doing restorative justice, and Washington School is piloting peace circles. “There’s really different ways of working with kids and concentrating on conflict resolution.”
School Board member Candance Chow said, “On the whole PBIS is a wonderful program,” but, she said, some teachers are using negative consequences rather than positive reinforcement, “which is a concern.” She also said the District needs to continue making the switch from an external reward system to instilling the “intrinsic value that this is the right thing to do.”
Board member Katie Bailey suggested that another way to reduce out-of-school suspensions would be to offer in-school suspensions through a formalized program.
Ms. Schultz cautioned that an in-school suspension “still removes the student from classroom instruction. … Just sitting somewhere doing work is not the optimal instructional experience for a child.” She added, “What is more effective is a shorter out-of-school suspension than a longer in-school suspension.”
Ms. Bailey acknowledged an in-school suspension was not optimal, but added, “An in-school suspension may be better than an out-of-school suspension and having children sometimes be unsupervised.”
She suggested that at the middle school level, maybe the District could have one school that handled in-school suspensions.
Claudia Garrison, a Board member and former teacher at Haven Middle School, said that a student’s conduct that led to an out-of-school suspension needs to be taken into account. “For some of them, there isn’t an alternative to an out-of-school suspension because of what they did. I’m not sure an in-school suspension is appropriate for those really serious cases.”
Ms. Garrison said, though, that she thinks in-school suspensions can work, but “it depends on how you set it up and who the person is in the room.”
Richard Rykhus said he agreed with Ms. Bailey. “In some instances those kids are wandering the streets, and they don’t have supervision. That’s not good for them and that’s not good for the community. It has them fall further behind. So I think what I personally am interested in is how do we shape a different in-school suspension experience that does allow them in some way to have some level of academic focus? It might not be the same level of academic focus, it may not be the same level of instruction, but it may still keep them making some type of forward progress so if they come back after five days, they’re not a full five days behind.”
Eileen Budde posed a broader question. “What jumped out at me, is African American males with IEPs have such a huge risk of getting suspended.” She asked how the District is addressing that.
Ms. Shultz said part of the focus of professional development includes cultural sensitivity training, which has been ongoing for several years.
Dr. Murphy said, “It has to be a broader effort to where we are very intentional about what’s happening in the school, the classroom where we are engaging parents and students. … The heart of this matter is all of this begins with the engagement of students. I think it’s important to see what we can do to work more effectively with our students so that our teachers don’t find themselves in a situation where they end up having to suspend students.”
Ms. Quattrocki recapped that the Board would like the administration to come back with a plan to expand the alternative to suspension program and to lay out options and costs to formalize an in-school suspension program before the beginning of the school year. It is anticipated the broader issues may fold into the discussion on the new strategic plan.