Youth advocates putting their stamp on new student conduct code

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The district’s new Student Code of Conduct (formerly called the Uniform Discipline Code) is a compromise between two positions: that of youth advocates who wanted more innovative methods of discipline, and principals and teachers who wanted more resources and training to use the innovative practices.

The biggest change is the School Board’s embrace of the principle of restorative justice, says Sarah Biehl, a staff attorney at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago who also runs a legal clinic at North Lawndale College Prep. Restorative justice is a movement that promotes repairing the harm done by misbehavior through such practices as mediation, restitution and community service.

The board has not yet found money to train school personnel, but at least is not mandating that schools use the restorative justice practices, Biehl adds. “I’m glad they’re not implementing something they don’t have the money or the training to do well,” she says. “It would have been doomed to fail.”

For the Chicago Teachers Union, avoiding red tape is a top concern. “We understand due process, and we’re not against that,” says Rick Perrotte, the union’s safety and security coordinator. In instances where the revised code requires approval of an area instructional officer before a student can be removed from school, says Perrotte, “we’re concerned about time.”

Key elements of the revised code:

Schools were given more clarity on when to call police. Earlier this year, in the wake of controversy over thousands of student arrests at schools, district officials said they wanted to clarify which infractions required calls to police and reduce the number of arrests for minor infractions.

The new code spells out which offenses require a mandatory police call and which do not.

But student advocates were disappointed by the decision to keep vandalism, a common infraction, on the list of offenses that require a mandatory call, says Biehl. Vandalism, in particular, lends itself to restitution because the offender can help clean up the damage, she adds.

However, Perrotte notes that the union contract specifies mandatory calls for certain offenses, including arson, assault on employees and serious vandalism. “Those things we stood very strong on. Those things which are criminal, you cannot decriminalize,” he says.

Suspended students must be given the chance to take high-stakes tests. “There’s a conspiracy theory that schools are suspending students who would pull down their test scores,” Biehl observes. While those students now have the right to take the test, “parents are going to have to remind the schools” of that right, she adds.

Perrotte is not convinced the change is wise, fearing that “shepherding” a student in just to take a test could disrupt the testing environment as well as single out the student. “Some tests have make-up periods, and they’re far enough afterwards that he or she could take it without disrupting other students,” he says.

It’s easier to refer offenders to alternative schools. Students who are not in special education can be referred for emergency placement in an alternative school “if the student commits a serious act of misconduct that presents a credible threat of harm to themselves or others.”

“That’s really vague,” notes Biehl. “I take that to mean, if schools don’t want to go through the expulsion process, they can get rid of the student. There is no hearing required, so it seems that parents and students don’t get any notice.”

In other districts, says Biehl, this practice “has had bad effects on dropout rates.”

Perrotte says he understands the concern but believes procedural safeguards (the area instructional officer or CPS Law Department must approve the emergency placement) should prevent abuses.

Suspension and expulsion data must be tracked by race, gender and ethnicity. Biehl says that to get a more complete picture, alternative school placements should also be tracked.

Kindergartners can’t be suspended without the approval of area instructional officers. The district appears to be recognizing public sentiment that suspending a kindergartner is “pretty appalling,” Biehl says.

Perrotte warns, however, that some children may be a danger. Once the matter is referred, “the turnaround time is of great concern. We’re looking for help early and often for students in need.

In-school suspension days increased. For certain lesser offenses, students may be assigned to in-school suspension for up to five days; previously the maximum was three.

Perrotte supports the idea. “Any setting where school personnel can help and be a positive influence, that’s what we’re looking for.”

To contact Maureen Kelleher, send an e-mail to editor@catalyst-chicago.org.