Demystify student discipline

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Veronica Anderson, editor

Veronica Anderson, editor

Student suspensions and expulsions have risen sharply in Chicago’s public schools in the past 10 years, spurred in part by a zero tolerance policy on fighting and other serious breaches of conduct. As our cover story this month highlights, the number of elementary school suspensions more than doubled, and the total number of students expelled quadrupled.

The trend has been accented by stunning reports of kindergartners being sent home, policemen being called in to schools to deal with minor infractions, and so-called “lock-down” lunches, where students are not permitted to talk. All of this has created enough concern among parents in five communities on the South and West sides that they have organized a campaign against what they say are unfair and unjustified punishments being meted out at elementary schools. At Brunson Elementary, for instance, a kindergarten through 5th grade math and science specialty school in Austin, parents have complained that nearly 300 suspensions were reported for 2003.

At a School Board meeting a couple months ago, a representative of the parents group expressed their concerns and asked for the district to release school-by-school data on suspensions and expulsions. Since then, Board Chairman Michael Scott’s office has been in touch, offering to provide data on individual schools as the group requests.

That’s not good enough. Hiding important information from parents and the public is like sweeping the underlying problem under the rug.

Catalyst made a similar request—in writing under the Freedom of Information Act—in April. The school district denied that request three months later, citing a federal privacy law that prohibits the release of information that would impinge on individual students’ privacy. “It is immaterial that you have not requested the names of the individual students,” a district official commented in a letter.

But the Illinois State Board of Education got it right, granting a subsequent request from this publication for the same data. Every year, the state compiles data from every district in Illinois. Those numbers are used in a report the state then has to file with the federal government to comply with mandates of the No Child Left Behind law.

Under No Child Left Behind, expulsion and suspension rates are factors in determining whether a school will be deemed “persistently dangerous.” That label translates into choice, meaning students at those schools would be eligible to transfer to safer schools. It also translates into bad public relations for individual schools, and for the district. And that would clash with the mayor’s ramping up efforts to attract more middle class families who might be especially sensitive to security concerns.

As Catalyst goes to press, the state’s report to the feds is due Dec. 17, but CPS—and, to be fair, many other Illinois school districts—has not yet provided its figures. The state extended its deadline by two weeks to early this month.

However, once those statistics have been provided to the state board, the district owes it to everyone involved in schools to make them public.

To make good on its pledge to be more equitable and transparent in its operations, CPS should make timely release of accurate information a way of life. With such information in hand, parents and educators can work together to pinpoint areas where policy and practice might need to be changed.

ABOUT US We at Catalyst are pleased to welcome two new staff members. Brian Foster, a former communications associate for the Community Renewal Society and for the Ounce of Prevention Fund is our new marketing director. He succeeds Ericka Moore-Freeman, who has ably served Catalyst in various positions for the last seven years. Maribell Ruiz, who is in paralegal studies at Robert Morris College, is our new circulation and office coordinator. She succeeds Irasema Salinas-Gonzalez, who came to us three years ago as an editorial intern. We wish Ericka and Irasema the best of luck as they take their careers in new directions.