Doing more than talking about discipline

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In poll after poll, parents, teachers and the general public have said that student discipline is one of their chief concerns. It has been a prime concern of Chicago’s new school administration as well. So it was jarring to learn that the Board of Education doesn’t have a complete tally of how many students were suspended last year. In reviewing board records, Catalyst found that for 21 of 62 high schools (not counting special education facilities) there was no suspension data or suspiciously skimpy data. In talking with school disciplinarians, we learned that data may have been fudged by, for example, excluding suspensions that were for fewer than three days.

Further, some school officials said it’s not uncommon for schools to send kids home—unofficially, without filling out notification forms—and tell them not to return without a parent. That’s unconscionable. What if the student is involved in an accident on the way home? Or simply opts to take a few days vacation before telling a parent he or she must escort him back to school? With the unstructured lives some students lead, that’s entirely possible. In fact, Catalyst intern Lisa Lewis, a former disciplinary aide at a Chicago high school, says kids sent home “unofficially” from her school sometimes didn’t come back for one or two weeks.

Failure to report all suspensions is a violation of state law. More important for student learning, failure to report all suspensions means that faculties and local school councils don’t know what’s going on in their own schools. Which means they can’t accurately judge whether their approach to discipline is working or whether it should be changed. And every school is deprived of comparisons that would show it where it stands and possibly point to other schools that have an approach worth trying. Schools cannot be judged by numbers alone, but numbers are a starting point for improvement.

According to central office, lax reporting of suspensions is a longstanding problem that has gotten worse since school reform gave schools more autonomy. However, central office is not powerless here; it retains the authority to enforce state law. And it has a printing press and internal mail system, which means it can publish and distribute to principals and local school councils a report showing the data, or lack of data, from every school in the system. That way, it can tap into local leadership to get action rather than having to rely on bureaucratic mandates.

The annual discipline report issued by the Houston Independent School District is a good model. For every school in the district, including special schools, it lists the number of cases and the number of individual students, by race, who have been (1) assigned to in-school suspension, (2) suspended, (3) subjected to corporal punishment (which is prohibited in Chicago), (4) expelled and (5) referred to the police department. The total number of cases and the total number of students also are listed as a percentage of school enrollment. Chicago could go Houston one better by adding trend lines, as it has with reports on test scores.