Model discipline code would limit suspensions to keep more kids in school

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CPS officially repealed its zero tolerance policy years ago, but with
the latest figures showing that nearly 13 of every 100 students was
suspended in the 2007-2008 school year—perhaps the highest rate of any
big city—advocates want to re-ignite a discussion about improving
discipline.

CPS officially repealed its zero tolerance policy years ago, but with the latest figures showing that nearly 13 of every 100 students was suspended in the 2007-2008 school year—perhaps the highest rate of any big city—advocates want to re-ignite a discussion about improving discipline.

The goal is to have a model school code by next spring and then to market it to school districts, such as Chicago’s.

The groundwork for this conversation was laid during a recent day-long summit at Northwestern University School of Law to discuss a proposed new student code of conduct. The code would establish education as a basic human right and reform discipline to keep students in school.  

The premise is a bit abstract, but the proposed model code lays out some specifics that would dramatically change how CPS does business. Two examples: District-wide teaching of social and emotional skills to help students manage their behavior; and a requirement that schools report each suspension, expulsion, arrest and call to police by race, gender and type of infraction.

The model code would put more restrictions on suspensions, which disproportionately affect African-American male students, as reported in the May/June 2009 Catalyst In Depth. Currently, disciplinarians have wide latitude to hand out suspensions, but the model code would institute a formal hearing beforehand. The hearing would be staffed by three non-school employees, including a parent, a school staff member and a student.

The code would also limit who and how long students can be suspended. Most notably, it states that no student under the age of 10 should be suspended at all and those under 15 should only be suspended for less than three days.

About half of the 50,000 students suspended in CPS in 2007-2008 were put out for four or more days; 25,000 were in elementary school.

‘Push-outs’ and prison

Lori Turner, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, says her office is concerned about the district’s apparent “over-reliance” on suspension and expulsion for discipline. Most worrisome is that research has shown a strong correlation between discipline and dropping out: Students who are suspended even once are three times more likely to eventually quit school.

But Turner notes other districts around the country have been more active in pushing for reforms of school discipline. Judges in Alabama are trying to revise zero-tolerance provisions, she says, and legislators in Florida and Texas have already passed bills outlawing harsh discipline, such as suspension and expulsion for minor offenses and arrests.

In Chicago, the movement has been more focused on the after-effects of suspension and expulsion, including school “push-outs” and students winding up in prison down the road.

A discussion at the seminar addressed the issue of pushouts. Adilka Pimentel, a recent high school graduate from New York, suggested that an environment in which students feel criminalized often leads to pushouts. An example: Students who are greeted by metal detectors and yelling guards as they enter school  

Pimentel remembers students who were hand-cuffed and taken to the local police precinct for failing to remove their hat or for having White-Out in their backpack.

She also recalled being personally subjected to harsh discipline. To take part in a dance practice, Pimentel had permission to be on a particular floor of her school where she normally would not have been allowed. Security guards who found her claimed she was “trespassing” and Pimentel had to fight a 90-day suspension.

Another seminar participant, Brian Huff, a family court judge in Jefferson County, Ala., says that zero-tolerance policies are convenient for administration but not always in the best interests of students. “Zero tolerance means there are no nuances, no mitigating circumstances,” he says.

Several local advocacy groups in Chicago are working on the ground to reform discipline in schools, Turner says. Groups such as Alternatives Inc. and the student-run Southwest Youth Collaborative are involved in trying to curtail the push-out phenomenon.

“The whole school-to-prison pipeline is something that we think a lot about in our office because of its disproportionate effect on students of color,” says Turner. “We know the devastating impact that these out-of-school punitive measures have on kids.”

The target date for the completed model school code is March 2010, says Rosa Hirji of the American Bar Association, which sponsored the summit. Once finished, Hirji hopes to make it available to policymakers, school superintendents, school board members and state legislators.

Hirji is confident that a media campaign on the proposed code would benefit Chicago. CPS has adopted some practices that emphasis alternatives to suspension and expulsion, but hasn’t gone far enough. “We hope that major districts like Chicago, who’ve had issues with school climate and violence, will look at the remedies and alternatives presented in this code and take it seriously,” she says.