The District 65 School Board has focused on reducing out-of-school suspensions for more than 10 years, and it has made substantial progress since it implemented an alternative to suspension (ATS)  policy in 2009, and then strengthened the ATS policy and adopted a more holistic approach in 2014.

At the Feb. 26 meeting of the Board’s Policy Committee, administrators recommended that the District formally align its suspension policy with a State law enacted in 2015, and revise – or fine tune – several ongoing programs.

Some Background

In October 2009, the Board approved a plan to provide an alternative to suspending a student for most behavioral issues. Under the plan, the District offered counseling services to the student and his or her parents in an  attempt to keep the student in school and to address the underlying causes of the behavioral issues. The plan built on programs the District already had in place to address student behavior.

In the 2008-2009 school year, there were a total of 456 incidents that led to out-of-school suspensions. Four years later, in 2012-13 there were 239 out-of-school suspensions.  There was a disparity by race: 67% of the students suspended in 2012-13 were African American, even though African Americans accounted for 26% of the District’s student body.

At the Board’s request, the ATS program was expanded at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year to include students who had committed even the most serious offenses. In addition, the Board approved several additional changes to the Board’s policies on suspension procedures, including that no child could 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 or more times, or for a cumulative total of 10 days or more.

In October 2014, administrators laid out a comprehensive approach to address behavioral issues, including a focus on changing behavior through a range of programs and interventions, including  implementing restorative practices in the District; continuing Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS); and continuing social and emotional learning programs that were part of the District’s five-year strategic plan. 

Between 2014 and 2017, District 65 made further progress in reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions. In 2014 there were about 27 out-of-school suspension days per 100 Black students, and that number dropped to about 10 in 2017. During the same period, the number of out-of-school suspension days dropped from about 10 to about five per 100 Hispanic students, and from about three to two per 100 White students.

Aligning With State Law, Deepening Restorative Practices

At the Feb. 26 Policy Committee meeting, Joyce Bartz, Assistant Superintendent of Special Services, recommended that the Board align its suspension policy with Public Act 99-0456, a 2015 State law restricting suspensions, and that it revise several policies. Ms. Bartz said Public Act 99-0456 was the “strongest effort by a State to curtail the school-to-prison pipeline.”

Under the Act, school districts “must limit use of suspension and expulsion to the greatest extent practicable,” and a suspension “can only be used for a student who substantially poses a threat to the school community,” said Ms. Bartz.

Under the new law, a suspension of three days or less is allowed “if the student’s continuing presence in school would pose a threat to school safety or a disruption to other students’ learning opportunities.” This decision must be made on a case-by-case basis, using a “systematic threat assessment.”

A suspension longer than three days is allowed “only if all other interventions have been exhausted, and the student’s presence in school may substantially interfere with the operation of the school.”

The District must provide support services (e.g., counseling or tutoring) to students suspended for more than four days. The District must also work with parents to develop a plan to ensure a student is successfully reintegrated in the school.

Taking a Proactive Approach  

Ms. Bartz said the District uses many different types of practices “to proactively reduce suspensions,” including by providing an alternative to suspension; providing restorative justice approaches, such as restorative counseling and responsive circles; by providing individual social skills instruction or behavior intervention plans based on an analysis of data and root causes; by providing individual or group counseling, classroom-based interventions, school-wide behavioral supports, and social and emotional learning; and by making referrals to appropriate service providers, both in and outside the school.

Under the District’s five-year strategic plan, Climate Action Teams have been created in each school. The teams looks at disciplinary data for the school, and analyze whether incidents are occurring at certain times of the day or in certain locations and where problems are emerging, and  they seek to determine the root causes for racial disparities in the area of discipline, said Ms. Bartz. The goal is for each team to think through the issues and come up with an action plan to improve the climate and safety of the school for all students.

Superintendent Paul Goran said the idea is to create an engaging atmosphere where students feel connected, “so that we can hopefully approach something that leads to suspension reduction.”

Restorative Work

“The restorative work is still in some ways kind of in the beginning,” said Ms. Bartz. “We have done a lot of work in sharing circles, and it is about relationships. We have now moved to doing more in terms of our peace circles, or our responsive circles, which is where we’re talking about conflicts that might be going on in the classroom, or between students or between students and teachers.

“This is kind of the next step in terms of the work. But the depth that we’re looking at and planning in terms of what we want to do with this restorative work can really be outstanding. This is the method we want to use in really working through conflicts, relationship building, feeling safe, connections not just with kids, but parents and the larger community and staff as well. It’s exciting work.”

Modifying PBIS

Committee Chair Sergio Hernandez said if all of the best practices of the District were carried out, it would eliminate the need for PBIS.

Andalib Khelghati, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, said, “PBIS is a framework where we’re focusing on positive behavior, we’re focusing on ‘you’re doing well,’ ‘you’re being respectful,’ giving an affirmation of a vision of where you can go toward.” He added that a component of PBIS includes “cool tools that are taught every single week where children are getting coordinated lessons that are the result of teams of teachers coming together on a monthly basis and analyzing the data and seeing where the problems are emerging.”

Mr. Khelghati said that PBIS’s system of giving tokens to reward positive behavior is “a complete failure,” but he said, “The system is a well-coordinated process that gives us a way to think about behavior in the building. I think PBIS is the best system to get to that information.”

He said he thought it provided data that staff in each school can use to analyze when and where problems are emerging in the school, and to formulate a plan to address them.

 “What we gain from PBIS is a way to think about information, rather than making categorical decisions about children,” Mr. Khelghati said.

Ms. Bartz added, “There are parts of PBIS that we want to maintain, and parts that we are not supportive of.”

Superintendent Paul Goren said, “Colleagues across the District stress the importance of having a system that helps guide their way. If we make a shift, “We have to do it in a systematic way, so we can make sure people have the supports they need.”

One thing Ms. Bartz recommended is that administrators develop a uniform PBIS system for all schools to follow.

Threat Assessment

Public Act 99-0456 provides that a suspension can only be used “if the student’s continuing presence in school would pose a threat to school safety or a disruption to other students’ learning opportunities.”

Mr. Khelghati said, “To make any suspension you have to go through a process and a threat assessment. The judgement call has to be made within the parameters of the law.”

Ms. Bartz said, “We have a procedure we use for threat assessment. This is really to assess school violence or potential difficult situations,” and “to really look at where a student is so we can make a better judgment.”

 “The purpose of the law is not exclusion,” said Mr. Khelghati. “The purpose is protection for both parties and developing a plan for reintegrating the child into the school. If they select the three-day option, it’s really to prepare the community and the child to being able to provide supports.”

Board member Joseph Hailpern said, “That’s a suspension that has a purpose that’s still protecting the sanctity of the educational space and giving time away for healing so that when we come back, you’re ready for it and they’re ready for it.”

Ms. Bartz said the District needs to prepare a revised policy that is more aligned with Public Act No. 99-046 and that also embeds the restorative practices work that the District is doing. She said the policy should define what constitutes a “threat of safety,” identify who will be responsible for providing support services during out-of-school suspensions, and what is the responsibility of staff in ensuring students make up missed work during suspensions.

Ms. Bartz said the Student Handbook should also be updated to reflect any changes.

Board member Anya Tanyavutti asked about equity. Ms. Bartz said, “Equity should be embedded in every single thing. We don’t want it to be siloed.” Ms. Tanyavutti suggested including an “umbrella statement” about equity. Ms. Bartz agreed.

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...