Chicago schools plan to combat violence: kinder, gentler security guards, disciplinarians

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Arne Duncan does not want to hear that any of the moves he made as CEO have anything to do with a spike in violence in schools. But several deans at high schools where discipline code violations have risen dramatically in recent years immediately point to school closings as a factor.

Arne Duncan does not want to hear that any of the moves he made as CEO have anything to do with a spike in violence in schools. But several deans at high schools where discipline code violations have risen dramatically in recent years immediately point to school closings as a factor.

One dean noted that deep neighborhood rivalries in Chicago are nothing new. “Papa Daley would have never closed a school in Englewood and sent the students to Bridgeport,” one administrator said. “He knew exactly what would happen.”

I previously reported that serious violations of the CPS discipline code—level 4, 5 and 6 code violations—have risen steadily, from 5,762 in 2006-2007, to 12,058 in 2007-2008, to 15,094 in 2008-2009.

Citywide, the rate of infractions is now 15 per 100 students, up from 5.4 per 100 students two years ago.

My analysis shows certain types of violations are pushing the numbers up:

• Violations in which students brought dangerous objects or firearms to school rose 43 percent, from 750 to 1,070 incidents.

• Incidents of students striking school personnel rose 30 percent, from 308 to 404.

• Violations involving fighting, persistent bullying and gang activity went up 18 percent, from 5,607 incidents to 6,634.

More training

Today, CPS officials unveiled a plan to curb violence in schools with more training. Spokeswoman Monique Bond says the administration plans to retrain security guards and school disciplinarians so that they are less punitive and act more like mentors to students.

“The approach cannot be solely hard-line discipline,” Bond says. “We have to delve into the root of the problem. We want to give them the right training so that they know how to approach the inner core of the students.” The security guards and disciplinarian at Hyde Park High School have made this shift and it has made a difference, Bond contends. In fact, the number of serious misconducts dropped by 45 percent, from 511 in 2007-2008 to 281 in 2009-2009. 

School closings create complex challenges that the administration will try to take into account in future decisions. But Bond says there’s not enough evidence to show a direct correlation with increased violence. “There are so many factors involved,” she says.

Yet I wonder how the administration’s assessment will sit with the deans I spoke with, whose stories had a similar theme: Policies that mix up students with loyalties to rival gangs in different neighborhoods are partly to blame.

Many of the deans I contacted were anxious about talking to me. One administrator’s voice shook as he referred me to his principal. Another told me to call the teacher’s union. Those that would talk were not willing to be identified. 

These administrators cited other factors besides closings, including new principals who are committed to accurate reporting of incidents; a desire to send a message that certain infractions won’t be tolerated; students being quicker to throw a punch; and a discipline policy that makes it difficult to expel students.

What happened inside schools

In 2004, Auburn-Gresham’s Calumet High School began a phase-out, sending neighborhood students elsewhere. A dean from a nearby school says that the gang members from Calumet were generally Blackstone Rangers, and they did not get along with Gangster Disciples at his school.

Calumet’s closing happened several years ago, but for some reason, last year’s freshmen seemed to be more deeply entrenched in gang activity and conflicts were a regular occurrence, according to this dean. “The freshmen were something else,” he says.

I spoke to him as he was driving from an expulsion hearing back to his school. He noted that the expulsion process sometimes has an unintended consequence: increasing violence. For one, except in the most egregious cases, students awaiting expulsion hearings have the right to go back to their school. And instead of expulsion, many students are sent to a Saturday diversion program called SMART and allowed to stay in school.

“So you jump on someone and beat them up real bad. I put you up for expulsion, but 10 days later you are back at school,” the dean noted. “At that point, the person you beat up takes matters into their own hands.”

This dean’s school also had a high number of drug violations last year. For the most part, the students did not bring drugs to school, he said, but were obviously high, with red eyes and hands smelling of marijuana. “I wanted to send a message, ‘Don’t come to school like that,’ ” he says.

Another dean says that when Englewood High School closed, the admissions policy at his selective school had to be changed so that neighborhood students could attend. The teachers and administrators were not prepared for the change, and CPS did not send the school enough help.

The dean says that the situation is getting better at the school, mainly because he is focusing on keeping the school hallways clear and writing up the students who are tardy. “What we found is that by concentrating on the smaller things, the major things don’t happen,” he says.

However, administrators caution that more violations don’t necessarily signal that the school is more violent.

One disciplinarian from a West Side high school says gang flare-ups that followed a school closing several years ago are now mostly a thing of the past. The administration expelled some students and transferred others to a group of schools that agreed to help each other. “We agreed to swap problem children,” he says.

But last year, his school posted an increase in the number of infractions because of more fights involving young women.

At Julian High School in Washington Heights, violations rose from a rate of 7 per 100 students in 2007-2008 to 33 per 100 students in 2008-2009. In April, CEO Ron Huberman fired the principal following complaints about disorder in the school, and brought in Careda Taylor, who had worked in the Office of High Schools.

Taylor says she cracked down on misbehavior, and that approach might have pushed up the number of violations.

“We enforce the [discipline] policy and students know the consequences,” she says. “The school has become a much, much calmer place.”

A similar increase took place at Harper High School in Englewood. Last school year, Harper was part of the turnaround process, which entails the replacement of most staff and administrators. Don Fraynd, the head of the Office of Turnarounds, says that he suspects the spike in incidents is most likely due to Principal Kenyatta Butler-Stansberry having a “by the book” approach, reporting every incident.

Fenger is undergoing the turnaround process this year, and Fraynd, too, stresses that the turnaround process does not cause violence, especially the extremely serious violence that led to Derrion Albert’s murder (which did not take place on school grounds). “The rage and hurt that allows someone to beat someone until they are dead is not caused by a new set of teachers,” Fraynd says.

Turnaround schools are given extra funding and much of it is spent on staff and programs focused on improving a school’s culture and climate. But Fraynd says it takes at least a year before a school’s environment changes for the better.

Andres Durbak, the former head of safety and security, commented on my previous story that IMPACT—the new student reporting system in which discipline code violations are recorded—sometimes counts one violation several times. (Durbak’s phone number is not listed and he was not reachable.)

But no one I interviewed in the schools shared his concern. Several school administrators complained about IMPACT, saying that often the system is down, forcing them to delay inputting information or printing forms.

 Contributing: Maren Handorf