On April 30, the Policy Committee of the District 65 School Board considered the process to use to create a revised student behavior and discipline policy that reflects the Board’s goals and vision for student behavior. 

The School Board has focused on school discipline and the disproportionality of suspensions and other disciplinary actions for more than 10 years. In 2009, the District implemented an alternative-to-suspension (ATS) policy in an effort to reduce out-of-school suspensions.  In 2014, the District strengthened the ATS policy and adopted a more holistic approach.

Three months ago, Assistant Superintendents Andalib Khelghati and Joyce Bartz recommended that the District amend its suspension policy to align it with Public Act 99-0456, a 2015 State law under which school districts must limit suspensions to the “greatest extent practicable.”

Ms. Bartz said these changes have been implemented, and that the District has implemented other changes, including restorative justice training in 11 schools; the alternative to suspension program has been offered in a slightly different way and more students have been taking advantage of the program; administrators are conducting a review of school climate in all the schools; and social, emotional and equity learning is provided in all K-5 classes.

Mr. Khelghati said “the need for change is really rooted in our policy itself. When you look at our current policy, it really focuses very briefly on a provision of what student behavior must look like in school, but it very quickly moves to what we don’t want. … The rules are very much focused on what you shouldn’t do, and what you do when you harm someone else.”

He added, “We’ve changed some practices, even though the policies haven’t changed,” said Mr. Khelghati.

He listed some things he thought were key components of an effective student behavior/discipline policy.

“There’s been a lot of discussion in our racial equity work to really think about the school-to-prison pipeline and the way that policies have impacted negatively particularly Black students and students of color across the District and across the country,” Mr. Khelghati said.

“It is very important to create a comprehensive policy using the racial equity lens.”

He added that leading school districts in the country identify a vision for student behavior, school engagement and community support. A good policy, he said, should include “a really clear vision of what we want students to be doing and what the adults’ roles are and ultimately what the parents’ roles are.” The policy should also provide “a real clarity around the vision about the victim. How do you move out of a victim or aggressor role, so everybody can function?”

Mr. Khelghati said the policy statement should also contain overarching principles or a “creed,” such as “We are trustworthy; We are respectful; We are responsible; We are fair….” 

The creed should apply to both staff and students, he said. “Adults have responsibilities too. Anti-bullying starts with adults who are respectful.”

A common problem that limits the effectiveness of a school code of conduct is a failure to involve stakeholders who have been impacted or may be impacted by the code, said Mr. Khelghati. It is important to create a code of conduct with input “from those who will be impacted. … You need to engage those who will be impacted.”

Finally, he said, a well-established code of conduct is “consistently cited as a positive, whole-school approach to preventing persistent and serious misbehavior among challenging students.” In addition, responding early and effectively to student misconduct is important.

Ms. Bartz said the discipline policy of Minneapolis Public Schools “exemplifies a lot of the things we would like to consider putting into our policy.”

She said the Minneapolis school district policy includes the following key focuses:

• Goals, values and key elements to frame the approach

• Rights, responsibilities and roles for all stakeholders

• District-wide rules and guidelines for interventions

• Isolates race and the need to address racism endemic to the system.

Mr. Khelghati said they plan to form a committee to gather input and develop a student behavior policy that reflects “our current thinking and incorporates our racial equity work and restorative practices.” 

Input From the Policy Committee

Ms. Bartz asked members of the Policy Committee to comment on two things: “1) what are the important principles and vision that the Board is interested in adopting? and, 2) What are the guiding principles the Board is considering, or wanting the committee to review regarding the balance of student behavior and school safety and how those meld together?”

Board member Joey Hailpern said, “There’s a lot of gray in the policy, and I think that’s where bias, and that’s where a lot of negative energy comes into play.” He said he would like to take a look at that to “figure out what we want to change.”

He added he would like the District to gather input from students who were suspended to find out what their experience was and see how they felt about the process.

Board member Sergio Hernandez said, “Everyone has implicit bias.” He said he would like to explore that and see “how it manifests itself. I think that’s what you’re trying to get at.”

He added that he favored moving away from the punitive language approach to an approach that lays out what the District expects in regard to the behavior of students and adults.

Board member Suni Kartha said, “I think everyone here would agree the disproportionality we continue to see year after year is troubling and something that we want to address, but we also have to make sure that they can be addressed in a tactful way in the classroom, with the value that we want to keep kids in the classroom.”

Ms. Kartha added that she thought the policy statement should address the priority areas listed in a memo that she and Board member Candance Chow prepared in 2015:

• Establish expectations of what discipline accomplishes

• Determine roles/responsibilities of stakeholders

• Identify values relative to the role of discipline in school

• Integrate District 65’s commitment to Posivive Behavior Intervention and Suports

• Codify commitment to restorative and alternative practices to support students facing challenges including OSS, and community service options

Mr. Khelghati said what he appreciated about the 2015 memo prepared by Ms. Chow and Ms. Kartha “was a recognition that we need to come to a more solid version for where we want to go. … Part of what a policy statement can do is it can give everyone marching orders of what we want to stand behind.”

Ms. Kartha also expressed concern about creating a task force or a committee, rather than using the structure the District currently has.

Mr. Khelghati said they would not be creating a permanent committee, but they would be creating a series of engagements where they would bring people together for a dialogue around some guiding principles articulated by the Board’s Policy Committee.  He said he would like teachers and parents to be part of the conversation. He would also like to obtain input from impacted stakeholders and said they could also gather input from existing committees as part of the process.

He emphasized that he wanted to be sure that a proposed  student behavior and discipline policy represented the community’s shared values.

Mr. Khelghati said they planned to bring a proposed policy to the Policy Committee in the fall.

School District 65 provided its quarterly suspension report to the School Board on April 23. The report provides data showing the number of out-of-school suspensions for the third quarter, as well as for the first three quarters of this school year, 2017-18. The report also provides data for comparable periods for the prior four years.

The accompanying chart shows the number of suspensions for Black, Hispanic and White students in the first three quarters of this school year and for comparable periods in the prior four years.

The total number of suspensions of all students in the District declined from a high of 157 in the first three quarters of 2013-14 to a low of 79 in 2015-16, but since then it has increased to a total of 115 this year.  

The average length of a suspension in the first three quarters of this school year was 1.7 days, compared to 2.3 in 2014-15.

Even though 23% of District 65’s students are Black, 61% of the suspensions this year were of Black students.

The report also shows that a high percentage of the suspensions are of students who have an Individual Education Program (IEP). In 2015-16, 61% of the suspensions were of students who had an IEP. This year the percentage was 45%.
Even though 13% of the District’s students have an IEP, 45% of the suspensions were of IEP students.

For information on how District 65 is attempting to reduce out-of-school suspensions, see the article “District 65 Continues Work to Reduce Suspensions” posted online, evanstonroundtable.com, March 7, 2018.

Larry Gavin

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...