School District 65 is making major changes in the way it views and addresses student behavior, suspensions and alternatives to suspensions. The issue has been a major topic of discussion at four Board and committee meetings since May 2013, most recently at a Board Policy Committee meeting on Oct. 1.

There has been a significant decline in the number of suspensions since the 2011-12 school year. That year there were 316 suspensions; in 2012-13, there were 239; and last year – up through April 14 – there were 145.

But a substantial disparity in the number of suspensions by race and by disability status persists: 67% of the students suspended last year were African American students, even though they account for 26% of the District’s student body; 33% of the students suspended have a disability, even though about 10% of the student body, overall, has a disability.

Board members and administrators have been actively seeking ways to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions and to increase the use of the District’s Alternative to Suspension (ATS) policy, implemented seven years ago.  

“As we look at the data, we suspend too many children who are children of color,” said Paul Goren, superintendent. “We have to pay attention to how we engage young people so that they can be part of and engage” in school.

On Oct. 1, John Price, assistant superintendent for schools, and Joyce Bartz, assistant superintendent for special services, laid out a comprehensive approach to address these issues, including a focus on the “antecedents” to behavior; and they proposed several changes to the Board’s policy dealing with suspension procedures.

“This is not just tweaking around the corners,” said Dr. Goren. “This is a substantial change in how we look at suspensions and how we pay attention to what are suspendable offenses and what we do about it, but it’s that model of antecedent to behavior to consequences.

“It’s also saying we will invest our time in building a culture for all, so it’s conducive to learning and conducive to problem solving.”

Taking a Comprehensive Approach

Mr. Price said any discussion on consequences for violations of the District’s behavioral code must take into account the “antecedents” to that behavior. “If our goal is to reduce suspensions, we have to be sure we’re considering the behavior that results in those consequences and also try to prevent those behaviors,” he said.

“We believe that behavior is motivated by precursors and that behavior is goal oriented,” he added. “If you understand what motivates the behavior we can try to place programs and supports that change behaviors.”

He said the District can change student behaviors through a range of programs and interventions. Some of the things he mentioned were the Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) program and Response to Intervention (RTI), which have been in place in the District for many years, and which provide important vehicles to change behavior.

He said there is a social and emotional learning curriculum in some of the schools, but said, “We’d like to see it implemented well in all of our schools.” Other things he mentioned include creating a strong sense of belonging and a sense of an identity for each student in a school, enhancing adult-to-student relationships, and mentoring students.

He said how the District views or frames student behavior is also important. Borrowing from Carol Dweck’s studies on mindset, he said, “Students are capable of changing behavior;” and adult interactions with a student provide “a learning opportunity.”

He added, “Many schools have worked on culturally responsive instructional practices that could help us understand and reflect on our role, as the adults, in students’ behaviors.”

“This is the place where, Joyce and I submit, the bulk of the work needs to be done to reduce suspensions,” said Mr. Price. “There’s a lot more work to be done.”

Ms. Bartz summarized some of the programs the District has in place and some that it is implementing this year to reduce suspensions or to modify student behavior. The ATS program has provided “more sessions this year than we’ve ever had,” she said.

She summarized some additional steps being taken. The District has hired Susan Kolian as a restorative justice coordinator to assist schools in setting up classroom circles, responsive classrooms, improved social and emotional learning programming and peer juries. Ms. Kolian is also working with the District’s PBIS coach, Andy Friedman, to develop an umbrella of services that promote improvements in school and social climate.

“We’re very excited about her work,” said Ms. Bartz, adding that 20 volunteers have already been trained to assist in the restorative justice program.

The District is also implementing anti-bullying/pro-social skill groups at Chute Middle School and behavior research methods in conjunction with the YWCA, said Ms. Bartz. Similar programs are being implemented in partnership with the Moran Center at Nichols and Haven missle schools, and with Turning Point at King Arts and Oakton school.

The District has also offered a variety of targeted professional development and training programs, said Ms. Bartz.

“We are committed, if not more committed to the antecedents,” said Dr. Goren. “How do we create a safe place called school, how do we have activities that truly engage young people, how do we pay attention to the issues that young people bring to school and try to get out ahead of them, so that we have a series of programs, interventions and engagements so kids and the adults that work with them feel they belong in the setting?”

Alternative to Suspensions

At the Board’s request, the ATS program was expanded at the beginning of this school year to include students who have committed a Category IV offense, which is the category listing the most serious offenses.  Previously, the ATS option was made available only to students who committed a Category II or III offense.

Dr. Goren said if a student commits a Category IV offense by bringing a weapon or drugs into school, “we’re obligated to do what we need to do under the code. We are also obligated to protect the general safety of all the children and all the adults in the school.”

Under the change, though, an ATS must be offered when a student has committed a Category IV offense. It may, however, be tagged onto the end of an out-of-school suspension.

In addition, starting this year, the ATS option must be offered in all cases that warrant suspension. In the past, principals exercised judgment in offering the option. Last school year the option was offered to about two-thirds of the families eligible to participate.

Under the program, a social worker provides counseling both to parents and the student during an evening or day session and works with the student and parents to develop strategies to modify the student’s behavior. A suspension is reduced by one day for each hour of counseling.

Ms. Bartz said, “We feel strongly that the counseling sessions make a big impact. We’ve seen recidivism is very low for families that participate in our evening sessions.”

While the program has strong results, not all families agree to participate. Last year, about two-thirds of the African American families declined.

In light of the high percentage of families that refuse the ATS option, Board member Richard Rykhus asked that administrators record the reasons that parents provide for not participating in the program and any other factors that might shed light on why the option is not exercised. 

Mr. Price added another dimension, “I would ask the Board to understand that principals obtain pressure to suspend.” He said he gets calls from principals asking, “Will you back me if I don’t suspend?”

Mr. Rykhus said, “We don’t want the principals to feel like they’re stuck in the middle.” He said  if the school community expects a “visible suspension” and if the student’s family has selected an alternative to suspension and counseling sessions in the evening “which is not so visible,” then “we need to let people know about this shift” to requiring that ATS be offered as an option in all cases. He asked the administration to get the word out about “this shift,” and added, “There’s a lot of agreement across Board members and the administration about this.”

Candance Chow said, “I think we need to raise awareness across the District with parents and in the community on what is the long-term way to address discipline.”

“The shift in approach that D65 is taking now is to move farther along the pathway of support for students, rather than punishment for students,” said Mr. Price. “ We have been moving this way for some time, and the creation of the Alternatives to Suspension program is a great example of a desire to support students rather than simply punish students.

“The other issue is a recognition that students do not learn during an out of school suspension – about their behavior, nor their class work.  We want to maximize students’ time in school.  Suspension can create a negative feedback loop for students, starting with a negative behavior, leading to suspension, leading to academic difficulties (missing class work, missing instruction), leading to more negative behaviors.  We want to make sure that we are not inadvertently supporting this cycle.”

Members of the Policy Committee expressed a desire to formally incorporate the recent changes to the ATS program in the Board’s policies.

Other Recommended Changes to the Board’s Policy

Mr. Price recommended several additional changes to the Board’s policies on suspension procedures, including that no child be suspended for more than five days without approval of the superintendent, and that the principal prepare a support plan for any child suspended three times or for 10 days or more.

Several Committee members requested that a support plan be prepared for a student who has been suspended two times or for a period of five days or more. Mr. Price said the requirement to prepare a support plan was the “bottom line” and principals could prepare one at an earlier date. He said these numbers had been discussed with the principals, and he asked for an opportunity to confer with them before the Board changed them. 

Mr. Rykhus also suggested that the District make a comprehensive review of the offenses, with a mindset to limit those that may be disciplined with a suspension.

Board member Claudia Garrison said, “We shouldn’t give the impression we have a huge problem with suspension.  I don’t think we do. I think we need more targeted solutions as opposed to a broad stroke policy.”

Going Forward

 “We are totally committed to safe and nurturing school environments,” said Dr. Goren.

“The culture of the school and climate in the school is so important to learning, it’s almost obvious,” he said. “And if we look at things such as the 5 Essential supports for school improvement, relationships matter as well, and that’s again somewhat the obvious.

“To leverage any sort of change, to make any sort of improvement, and to create the conditions where all kids can feel comfortable and safe, we have to pay really close attention to the culture and climate and the relationships in the building.”

Committee Chair Suni Kartha said that recommended changes to the Board’s policies would be brought before the Board for approval. “I think we’re going in a very good positive direction.”

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...