Suspension rates all over the map

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Suspension rates in Chicago high schools vary widely from school to school, according to a Catalyst analysis of data on suspensions and enrollment for 1994-95.

Disparity in stats

Citywide, high schools had an average of 28 suspensions for every 100 students, a low figure compared to other large urban districts.

However, the rate for individual schools ranged from a high of 106 per 100 students at Kennedy High in Chicago Lawn and Gage Park High in Gage Park, to a low of less than one suspension per 100 students at Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences and Lindblom Technical (each of which had a total of only three suspensions).

Altogether, 18 schools posted rates higher than the average, while 27 schools posted lower-than-average rates.

Schools in the same or neighboring communities sometimes posted vastly different rates. Amundsen High in Lincoln Square, for instance, had 51 suspensions for every 100 students, while a few miles away in neighboring Edgewater, Senn Metro High—with 500 more students—posted a rate of 12 suspensions per 100. Both schools have similar, highly diverse student populations.

Seventy percent of Amundsen’s suspensions were for offenses listed in Group 3 of the school system’s Uniform Discipline Code, records show; Group 3 includes misconduct such as using obscene language, fighting or persisting in other disruptive behavior. The remaining 30 percent of suspensions were for more serious Group 4 and 5 offenses, such as assault or drug violations. (The code divides offenses into five groups, ranging from 1, the least serious, to 5, the most severe.)

“The principal [and] the LSC’s philosophy is, we’re a school and you’re here for an education,” says Amundsen disciplinarian Sherwin Bulmash. This year, however, Amundsen has relaxed its tough approach by using after-school and Saturday detentions as alternative punishments for less serious misconduct; suspensions for those offenses are down, Bulmash reports.

At Senn, in contrast, 89 percent of suspensions were handed down for Group 4 and 5 offenses, records show. That’s still the case, says disciplinarian Herman Blade, who cites gang activity as the major cause of discipline problems. The number of suspensions this year is “running about the same” as last year, Blade says, but the school has begun cracking down in other ways; for one, suspensions are now for at least five days.

Further, 150 problem students have been put “on trial,” which involves close monitoring of their academic performance and behavior. About 50 of these problem students have been transferred to other schools after getting into more trouble, and another 30 moved away or have been dropped from Senn’s roster because of excessive absences. Of the remaining 70, the majority are “doing fine,” Blade says, but about 30 are still struggling and receiving counseling for academic and behavior problems.

In Roseland, Harlan and Fenger high schools had similar disparities; Harlan posted a rate of 25 suspensions per 100 students, compared to 70 per 100 at Fenger.

Reasons for disparity

Suspending students is “the last thing we do” says Harlan disciplinarian Michael White; even so, he adds, the number is “far more than I would like.” Many behavior problems could be solved with more parent involvement, he believes, but communicating with parents has proven difficult. “You can’t even get them to pick up report cards, so it’s really hard to get them to come in for conferences,” says White.

At Fenger, disciplinarian Martin Witt says the school has handed down more suspensions in recent years because students have gotten more involved in gang and drug-related activities. “You have to go strong against that,” says Witt. “There are some circumstances where you just can’t avoid it.” For less serious misbehavior, a new Saturday-morning detention program seems to be working, Witt reports, “because kids don’t want to get up early on a Saturday and come to school.”

Without knowing how other school districts implement discipline, it’s impossible to say what Chicago’s comparatively low suspension rate means, says Powhatan Collins, the Board of Edu-cation’s new director of high school services and former principal of Whitney Young Magnet High.

One reason, he says, could be increased use of alternative punishments. With poor attendance a persistent problem in many high schools, “one of the things we’re trying to do is promote alternatives to out-of-school suspension,” Collins adds. “In many cases, parents are working during the day, and kids are unsupervised. And in some cases, once students are out [of school] it’s hard to get them back.”

Bill Rice, the board’s director of data compliance reporting, says under-reporting by some schools also could account, in part, for the overall low rate. (See related story.)

Suspension rates vary among Chicago schools because the Discipline Code gives schools some leeway in imposing punishment, based on a student’s record and the severity of an offense, notes board attorney Ted Goldsmith. “Some [schools] use suspension as a rule, others don’t,” he says.

The board does have the authority to step in if a school appears to be punishing students too harshly. This past fall, one high school began suspending students for not wearing the school’s newly-required uniforms; the board ordered the school to stop the practice because it was “an improper use” of suspension, Goldsmith says.

Collins acknowledges that the disparities are an indication that the board ought to step up monitoring. “If we’re going to have a Uniform Discipline Code, then we should monitor and ensure that all schools are following it.” Schools have flexibility in handing out punishment, but that “does not negate [the need for] reporting,” he says.

Discipline before curriculum?

Educators who work in high schools say discipline and how it is handled—or should be handled—is a crucial issue. The incidence of serious violence is down throughout the system (see Catalyst, November 1994), but problems such as disrespect of teachers, as well as the inability of some teachers to manage teenagers, still interfere with teaching and learning.

“You must deal with discipline first, before you can begin to deal with curriculum,” contends Barbara Sizemore, dean of DePaul University’s School of Education. “As long as teachers are rattled by lack of discipline, they’re not going to concentrate on anything else.” Sizemore won contracts from the School Reform Board to work with a number of schools across the city, including 10 high schools.

Further, teaching teenagers often is much more difficult than teaching grammar-school students. “High schoolers are at that age where they’re really being rebellious and confrontational,” notes Michelle Smith, a math teacher at COMETS, Harper High’s communications-oriented small school.

Tough discipline

Some educators working in high schools see a growing trend toward “getting tough” with discipline.

“I don’t see schools learning to be more creative. I hear increasing cries for more punishment,” says Michael Klonsky, co-director of the Small Schools Workshop at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“Everyone’s talking about [instituting] closed-campus, strict discipline,” says disciplinarian James Gorecki at Gage Park.

Gage Park took that route several years ago, aiming to keep behavior in check at a time when gang activity in the area was on the rise. The local school council hired Audrey Donaldson—”an old-fashioned, strong principal,” Gorecki says—and voted to institute a closed campus, which keeps students inside for lunch.

Now, minor misbehavior, such as being in the hallway after the bell for the start of class, results in a detention and a conference with parents. A more serious offense, a second minor offense, or failing to serve a detention means automatic suspension.

“We don’t play here. We run a very, very tight ship,” says Gorecki. “We’re not your typical high school. You walk in any school and there’s kids walking the halls, no order. … We have visitors who walk in our building and ask, ‘Is there school today?’ ’cause there’s no kids around.”

Sizemore takes a similar view. Inner-city children “tend to need a lot of structure because their lives outside of school are unstructured. If you start with a tight ship, you can always ease up.”

At her 10 high schools, Sizemore adds, “I’m trying to get my principals to be more authoritarian.”

Critique of suspension

As a rule, though, most educators argue against suspension, saying it disrupts education and is often looked upon as a vacation, not a punishment.

“They [students] say, ‘Hey, I’m gone for three or four days,'” says Joan Jeter Slay, associate director of Designs for Change. “If they’re having a hard time with the school environment, they don’t want to be there anyway.”

Says Smith of COMETS, “I tell my kids, if you’re angry at me, you’re going to stay here and be angry. Suspension only works for kids who want to be in school.” As a small school, COMETS can suspend its students without an OK from Harper’s disciplinarian. Yet problems rarely become that serious, and most can be solved with private talks with students, Smith reports. “What we find out a lot of the time is they’re venting, that something or someone else is bothering them” other than the situation at hand, Smith says.

Even Sizemore, who has a reputation for being no-nonsense, says suspension should be imposed only on students who pose a physical danger to others. Instead, she says, schools should have an in-school suspension room that is staffed with a teacher and an aide who have children’s academic records on file and can work with them on subjects they’re behind in.

Many schools use in-school suspension, but instruction isn’t always provided. Some schools, though, say they can’t institute in-school suspension, due to lack of space or lack of money to pay a teacher to staff the room full-time.

Clear rules and penalties

Tilden High in New City saw a decrease in suspensions after the faculty, working under Sizemore, got together and wrote a set of rules and punishments, says Hazel Steward, former Tilden principal and now Region 3 education officer. “If you set out rules and penalties, you have to follow through on it,” Steward says. “When they [students] saw you meant business, that A would lead to B happening, with no exceptions, then A stopped happening.”

During each of the last several years, Hyde Park Community Academy has also suspended fewer students because “they’re getting the message about what’s proper behavior,” notes Richard Griffin, a 28-year veteran of Hyde Park who took over as disciplinarian this year.

To cut discipline problems further, Griffin has plans to start a peer group for students to talk about issues that might be affecting their school behavior; he also wants to get kids more involved in school activities. Overall, Griffin says, “You try as much as possible not to put them on the street, because that creates other problems,” such as more exposure to gang activity.

Foreman High in Portage Park has stepped up efforts to mediate conflicts between students before they escalate into fights, a common cause of suspension. Says Dean of Students Sandra Woolfolk, “We try to sit them down and get them to talk about it, to resolve the conflict in a peaceful manner.”

Better teacher-student relationships

Some progressive educators argue that emphasizing rules and punishments is an ineffective way to maintain discipline. The best way to improve student behavior, they say, is to improve teacher-student relationships and create a more positive atmosphere throughout the school.

“To me, a high suspension rate is an admission that a school has failed kids,” says Klonsky. “Schools are too big and impersonal, and suspending [students] becomes the way to control them.”

At COMETS, now four years old, major discipline problems began to decline during the second year, says lead teacher Sara Howard. “As I think about it, that’s been our biggest success,” she says.

Howard relates her three “rules” for handling discipline: (1) Treat students with respect—”Like people rather than underlings.” (2) Take a deep breath and think for 10 seconds before you react—”You can’t take everything a kid says as a personal affront to your authority.” (3) Know your kids—”That is the most powerful tool you have.”

Steve Strull, a social studies teacher at DuSable High’s School of Communications, credits respect for his lack of discipline problems. “I start with a basic level of respect from one person to another. The behavior of my students comes from that,” he says.

In general, schools set up an unequal balance of power between teachers and students, Strull believes; for instance, students usually must ask permission to use the bathroom and are not allowed to eat in class. In his class, eating is allowed, and students don’t need permission to leave for the bathroom or some other emergency. “I just tell them, if you need to go somewhere, let me know,” Strull says.

In general, students want to please adults and won’t abuse the freedom, he adds. “I’m not a psychologist, but I know what works in my classroom.”

Beyond discipline

Strull also disagrees with the notion that discipline and order must come before learning. Gesturing toward his class, which is somewhat noisy as students work on a five-week project, he says, “Look around the room. You don’t see order, but they’re learning. Three-fourths of them are working, others are thinking about their work, and some have already completed it.”

Punishment “persists because it’s easier. It takes talent, effort and skill to work at something better,” says Alfie Kohn, an author and former high school teacher who has researched discipline issues. Kohn is the author of the forthcoming book Beyond Discipline: From Compliance to Community.

“People who sit in faculty meetings and argue about whether to use this or that punishment are missing the point,” says Kohn. “The issue isn’t how you design a punitive system, it’s whether punishment of any kind is productive.”

Teaching and curriculum also must be improved, Kohn adds. As a teacher, he recalls, “I had real awful discipline problems and I thought I needed a discipline program. I realize now what I needed was a curriculum worth teaching. The [troublesome] students weren’t being malicious. They were just trying to make the time pass quicker.”

Contributing: Lisa Lewis

Suspension rates:

Catalyst contacted 10 of the nation’s largest school districts for data on high school suspensions. Six responded. Dade County, Fla. (which includes Miami), St. Louis, Dallas and Detroit did not have data available. In New York, a principal cannot suspend a student for more than five days at a time or more than twice in one year. Also, only district superintendents may suspend students for serious offenses such as those involving weapons or drugs.