Contrary to state law, nearly a third of Chicago high schools reported no data on suspensions, or incomplete data, to the Board of Education for 1994-95.
Nine of 62 high schools (not including special education schools) reported no suspension data; another 12 reported data that appeared incomplete; i.e., for only one or two of the five categories of infractions in the Uniform Discipline Code. Catalyst contacted these schools to obtain their tallies; four responded. Three of the four gave Catalyst higher tallies than those on record at the board.
According to the Illinois School Code, schools must report “any suspension” to the local school board. In turn, the local board must report all suspensions each year to the Illinois State Board of Education, says Karol Cheska of the state board’s Department of Policy, Planning and Research.
Chicago has no written policy stating that suspensions must be reported to central office, says board attorney Ted Goldsmith. But, he adds, “Theoretically, there should be data there.” Further, official Student Misconduct Report forms, which must be filled out every time a student is suspended, are printed with five copies, he notes: two for the school and one each for the parent, the district office and the board’s Department of Safety and Security, which collects the data.
“That documentation needs to be done, [and] it’s got to be consistent,” says Powhatan Collins, the system’s new director of high school services and support.
However, lax reporting and record-keeping is an open secret among many disciplinarians. “I report everything, and I know for a fact many of them don’t,” observes William Heyden, disciplinarian of Kennedy High in Chicago Lawn. “Unless it’s three days or more, they don’t report them.” Kennedy tied with Gage Park for the highest suspension rate of all high schools in 1994-95, 106 per 100 students.
At Gage Park, disciplinarian James Gorecki says his predecessor routinely suspended students until they brought in a parent for a conference. After the conference, the misconduct report was torn up, and the incident went unreported. Now, he says, “We fill out all forms. We hide nothing. We can tell you what a kid’s done for the last four years.”
Ron Beavers, director of the board’s new alternative schools programs, agrees that “unofficial” suspensions aren’t uncommon. “I tell schools, you’re not doing students a favor by cutting sweetheart deals with them,” says Beavers.
The approach also sends the wrong message about acceptable behavior, Gorecki maintains. “Say a kid swears at a teacher and is suspended pending a [parent] conference. The parent comes in the next day, and the kid’s back in class. Now, what kind of message does that send to the other kids?”
Principals that send students home without notifying parents or filling out the proper forms put themselves on shaky legal ground if, for instance, a student is injured on the way home, Collins cautions. “Parents have an expectation that the school will contact them. That is a responsibility the school has.”
Schools may not report suspensions for fear of “looking bad,” Beavers observes, but non-reporting can backfire. Recently, several schools that wanted to send troublemakers to alternative programs couldn’t do so, he recalls; the schools couldn’t prove that the students were eligible for alternative placement because the proper forms to document previous suspensions were never filled out and filed. “We only accept the official suspension notification,” says Beavers.
Collins says reporting may improve now that alternative schools have opened. “Schools are beginning to see we will act [to remove disruptive students] if they do the paperwork,” he says. “But we won’t let them just dump kids. They can’t come in and cite five or six other incidents with no paperwork on them.”
More than one school official said that central office never follows up to ensure that all misconduct reports have been filed. “I’m not going to touch that one,” said one principal when asked about follow-up.
Long-time school activist Joan Jeter Slay, associate director of the reform group Designs for Change, isn’t surprised at the careless reporting. In past years, Slay recalls, schools sometimes had the “bad habit” of sidestepping the required expulsion process by simply telling students not to come back to school. After the student had been out of school for a time, the school would record them as a dropout “when really they had been told not to come back,” Slay says.
The board ought to do a better job of collecting suspension data because such information helps provide a clearer picture of how schools are performing, Slay says. For one, she speculates, schools with high suspension rates could be paving the way to higher dropout rates. “Kids know where they are not wanted,” she says. “If you’re constantly shoving them out the door, you don’t think they get the message?” Suspended students often fall behind in their schoolwork, she adds, and are more likely to quit school out of frustration.
Bill Rice, the board’s director of data compliance reporting, notes that reporting and monitoring have slipped somewhat since the advent of reform; schools have been less consistent about reporting, and turnover at central office has brought in a wave of newcomers who are still learning the ins and outs of the system. “If you don’t have the information, you can’t monitor it,” Rice observes.