On April 28, administrators presented a report to the School Board concerning out-of-school suspensions, the alternative-to-suspension (ATS) program, and the disproportionate number of African American students and students with a disability who are suspended. 

The good news is the number of out-of-school suspensions is down so far this year, continuing a three-year trend. The disparities by race and disability status, however, continue.

Board members had a wide-ranging discussion on what can be done to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions and to increase the use of the ATS program. They also discussed ways to get to the root of behavioral issues, perhaps through culturally responsive instruction, and how to address  the needs of students whose parents decline  to participate in the ATS  program.

Policy on Suspensions/The ATS  Program

The Board’s policies prohibit specific conduct that is grouped into four categories. Category I offenses are the least serious and include behavior such as using a cell phone during school hours and cutting classes. Category IV is the most serious and includes hitting a school employee and using a weapon. 

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.

A panel of principals Jim McHolland (Chute), Kathy Roberson (Haven), Fred Hunter (Lincolnwood) and Andalib Khelghati (Dewey) told Board members there is a “delicate balance” in determining whether a suspension is appropriate. They said it is used as a last resort after other attempts have been made to address a student’s behavioral issues, or when it is necessary for the safety of the student or the school community.

Under the Board’s policies, parents of a student who has committed a Category II or III offense that warrants suspension “are provided the option to participate” in the ATS program. In practice, school principals may exercise judgment in offering the ATS option. If parents agree to participate in the program, their child will not be suspended.

The ATS Program is intended to keep students in the classroom, and also to form a partnership with the students’ parents to address behavioral issues.

As part of the ATS program, sessions are offered three nights per week at the District by social workers retained by the District.  ATS sessions are also provided during the day by school social workers. The social worker provides counseling during these sessions and works with the student and parents to develop strategies to modify the student’s behavior. 

Assistant Superintendents Susan Schultz and Ellen Fogelberg say students feel supported and accountable to their parents when their parents show up for sessions with them. The sessions promote home-school communication. At times, referrals may be made to take advantage of community resources.

Suspensions on the Decline

Lora Taira, chief information officer, said there has been a decline in suspensions since the 2011-12 school year. That year there were 316 suspensions; in 2012-13, there were 239; and this year – up through April 14 – there have been 145. These numbers do not include suspensions at Park School.

If the suspensions at Park School are included, there have been 159 suspensions so far this year, and 118 students have been suspended. Ninety-nine of the students have been suspended one time; 19 have between two and four times.  Almost 80% of the suspensions have been for between 0.5 and 3 days, and the balance for between 4 and 10 days.

There is a substantial disparity by race and by disability status: 67% of the students suspended this year are African American, even though African Americans account for 26% of the District’s student body; 33% of the students suspended have a disability, even though slightly less than 10% of the student body, overall, has a disability.

The ATS option has not been offered to every family eligible to participate in the program. ATS was offered to 64% of the African American students who were eligible for the program said Ms. Taira, compared to 66% of the Hispanic families,  84% of the white families,  and 100% of multiracial families.

Not all families agree to participate in the ATS program. Only 19 of the 56 African American families  who were given the option to participate in ATS agreed to participate. Stated another way, about two-thirds of these families declined.

“Some families don’t want to go forward with the counseling sessions,” said Joyce Bartz, director of special services.

Concerns re Disproportionate  Treatment

Board members Katie Bailey, Richard Rykhus and others expressed concerns about the disparities in imposing suspensions. They asked what was being done to reduce the disparity.

Ms. Bartz said, “It’s definitely concerning and something we have talked about at length in terms of the difference.”

She said administrators often discuss how to “develop discipline in our students” and that “a lot of the work has happened in the schools.” In addition to using the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) program in all of the schools, Ms. Bartz said some schools were working on implementing restorative justice, some are establishing peace circles, and some are attempting to work on social and emotional learning.

Ms. Roberson said Haven is bringing in two social workers from the Moran Center for Youth Advocacy to teach kids how to deal with their emotions. The goal is to help students to stop and think between an action and their reaction, she said. 

Ms. Bartz added another dimension. “Dr. Eddy spoke earlier tonight about cultural responsiveness,” she said. “I think that this is a piece that we need to continue to weave into our work and our classrooms and to think about this in a different way.”

Board member Candance Chow said the Board asked administrators last year to focus on using professional development and the Danielson framework to ensure that the classrooms were culturally responsive. She asked what progress had been made.

Ms. Fogelberg responded by listing some things that are important to provide a culturally responsive environment: understanding kids need breaks after they have spent a significant period of time concentrating on a lesson;  understanding how students in the class learn; and looking at the cultural experiences that kids have had that can be built upon.

Ms. Fogelberg also said teachers are asked, “What are you doing to make sure you’re asking higher-level questions and that you’re not assuming kids cannot handle more  challenging work because you’ve made judgments about them.”

Board member Claudia Garrison said the downward trend in the number of suspensions looks promising, but asked if there is a correlation between reducing suspensions and increasing student engagement. “It’s really important to turn our disengaged students into engaged students,” she said. “I’m not really confident we’re doing that.”

She added, “It keeps kids in school and it also looks like it helps with the recidivism rate.”

Ms. Shultz responded, “What you’re saying is really important.” She added, “Basically what we are seeing is an improvement in student behavior. We have very safe schools, orderly school environments. Our classrooms are well managed and our students are behaving very well. Ninety-eight percent of our students are behaving excellently,” she said.

ATS and Other Options

Ms. Bailey said, “It seems within categories II and III, it appears there’s some subjectivity as to who [ATS is] offered to and to who it’s not. I think we need to look at that because to me, it’s one of the most powerful tools. And it goes to consistency and fairness.” She added, “It keeps kids in school and it also looks like it helps with the recidivism rate.”

Mr. Rykhus said, if the option can be offered under the Board’s policies, “Then we should just be offering it.”

He also suggested that the Board start with the general policy there will be no out-of-school-suspensions,  and then work backwards to see what types of offenses would be an exception. He said the exceptions might include bringing a weapon or drugs to school, and offenses that impact school safety.

“Some of the kids acting out are the ones most in need,” said Mr. Rykhus. “I understand that a school suspension may [be needed], after a series of other actions, but I think that’s where we need to challenge ourselves to think differently. After we’ve done x, y and z, what else are we able to do?”

Ms. Chow suggested that the District consider providing “wrap-around services” and establishing a protocol that requires the District to consider establishing a wrap-around plan for students who might need it. She said the District “should look holistically at a child” and “address not only the situation in school but out of school.”

Ms. Bartz responded, “I think that’s a great suggestion. We do wraps for a number of students who have behavioral needs.”

Several Board members focused on how to help students whose parents decline to participate in the ATS Program. Ms. Bailey said, “If a family is not participating, maybe that’s the child that needs in-school suspension. Maybe we need to adapt our responses to  what’s child-centric.”

Board President Tracy Quattrocki asked if the District could develop an ATS model that did not require parents to participate. “To deny this alternative because the parents won’t help out seems doubly punitive,” she said.

Ms. Bartz said one of the reasons the ATS program is successful “is because the parent is involved with the student.”

Board member Suni Kartha responded, “I agree that in an ideal situation you would have the parent involved. But I think … in those cases where the parents are saying no, that doesn’t necessarily mean the child wouldn’t benefit from some sort of alternate to suspension. Maybe we could test out for a year some model of ATS that doesn’t require parental presence.

“I feel like the kids who are not getting support at home are the ones who really need it the most, who need the alternatives,” said Ms. Kartha.

Ms. Fogelberg said, “Sometimes a suspension is for the safety of the kids and sometimes it’s for the safety of the school community.”

Ms. Quattrocki said the discussion would continue at the Board’s Policy Committee meeting and the committee could consider changes in the Board’s policies.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...