District 65 Director of MTSS and SEL Donna Cross (from left), Dean of Culture and Climate Elijah Palmer and Assistant Superintendent of Schools Angel Turner provide an update on student discipline to the school board Monday, June 13. Credit: District 65 YouTube

During the 2021-22 academic year in Evanston/Skokie School District 65, 62 of the 99 students who received at least one out-of-school suspension were Black, according to an update on student discipline provided Monday, June 13, to the school board.

“I appreciate the thoroughness of the information and the honesty,” board member Anya Tanyavutti said. “I do, personally, find it really troubling to see the racial predictability in how children are excluded from educational opportunities.”

Tanyavutti also pointed out that the district has a significantly lower enrollment compared with four years ago, so the percentage of students receiving suspensions this year actually increased from the percentage in 2017-18.

District 65 handed out a total of 139 out-of-school suspensions during the year, Dean of Culture and Climate Elijah Palmer and Director of Multi-Tiered System of Support and Social Emotional Learning Donna Cross told the board.

This impacted 99 students. Black students were disproportionately represented among those who received suspensions, as 64% of suspensions involved Black students, while only about 25% of all District 65 students are Black, according to Palmer’s presentation to board members during the meeting.

District data shows, 81 student suspensions occurred during the most recent pre-pandemic school year in 2018-19, down from 141 in 2017-18. The district saw 51 suspensions combined between 2019-20 and 2020-21, when students spent significant time learning from home due to COVID-19.

Following Palmer’s discussion of student suspensions, Cross presented findings from a survey, showing the district checked in at the 55th percentile nationally for student-teacher relationships and just the 20th percentile for a sense of belonging and engagement among students. Several board members commented that the isolation of the pandemic has clearly damaged the relationship that students have with school in general.

“We want to start the school year off really having to rethink how we’ve operated in the past and put people on a path to make sure that we’re successful for all – adults, families, students, the community,” said Angel Turner, former Director of Literacy and a recently appointed Assistant Superintendent of Schools. “We just want to be very cautious of that moving forward and make sure that we are equipping [staff] with the tools they need.”

Improving the sense of belonging that students have in District 65 schools is a top priority moving forward into next year, Superintendent Devon Horton said, but teachers were not yet trained in using helpful relationship-building and de-escalation strategies like restorative practices until just a couple of months ago.

Additionally, the Omicron wave of COVID-19 this past winter postponed crisis prevention and intervention training for teachers until this spring, Palmer said.

For the coming school year, the district plans to have several staff members in each building trained in crisis prevention and restorative practices, Palmer said, and the district hopes to have staff in place at each school who can then train others working in their building.

Palmer also provided data on behavior referrals logged in on Branching Minds, an online system used by district educators. Of more than 10,000 total referrals during this school year, more than 2,500 were reported at Haven Middle School. But about 90% of those referrals at Haven were Level 1 or Level 2 behavior infractions, which are classroom management issues like students skipping class, showing up late, disrupting learning or being out of an assigned seat, for example.

Teachers at Chute Middle School logged more than 1,100 referrals during the year, while Nichols Middle School saw 377 referrals. Oakton Elementary experienced the most referrals of any elementary school with 866.

Tanyavutti and fellow board member Biz Lindsay-Ryan expressed concern that teachers at Haven could be over-documenting behavior problems among students, and they encouraged the district to focus on using alternatives to suspension to discipline students. But Horton responded by taking responsibility for some of the issues in reporting problems at Haven because the central office did a poor job training teachers in Branching Minds at the beginning of the year, he said.

“I don’t believe that teachers were being deceptive,” Horton said. “We were not clear in central office with, ‘Here’s the expectation for our teachers: Level 1s, Level 2s, that’s contact with parents.’ We were not checking up to see if the admins were making that clear on the building level, so I’m going to hold that accountability on our end.”

After the central district office communicated the expectations for using Branching Minds and following up with parents when necessary to teachers at Haven in March, the number of monthly behavior referrals in the system plummeted from more than 300 to just over 40, according to Horton and Palmer. For the upcoming school year, the district is also hiring four liaisons specifically for Haven who will be trained in de-escalation, monitoring hallways and serving as a bridge between families and the district.

“Once we build that capacity, once we leverage community partnerships, once we get our leadership in schools to be able to be schooled enough and have that vision of culture and climate that they can then spread out in their buildings, that will change the trajectory of culture and climate across the district,” Board President Sergio Hernandez said.

“We’ve still got some work to do, and, again, I’m confident that we are going to make some progress. We are going to turn these numbers around.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. Residents of Evanston need to keep in mind that the Haven community not only does not have representation on the Board, but our Board liaison – Biz – has not made an authentic attempt to build relationships with the parent community at the school.

    By way of concrete example, when I asked the Board in April if she had even visited the campus during this difficult year I got no reply from Biz or a clear answer if she’d even visited the school.

    IMO, if the Board is going to have a liaison function it needs to include an obligation for the liaison to make a real effort to engage with the school and community and hold itself accountable for reporting to the community how and in what way the liaison is engaging with the school community. It can’t just be criticizing the school at board meetings and during zoom calls.