No foot-dragging on school discipline reform

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State Sen. Miguel del Valle

State Sen. Miguel del Valle

Over the past 12 months, we have learned a lot about school discipline in Chicago. The Consortium on Chicago School Research, the U.S. Department of Education, and the students themselves have painted a very clear picture for us:

Extreme measures like suspensions, expulsions, and arrests don’t make our schools safer—and can in fact make things worse, by damaging the trusting student-teacher relationships that are the foundation for a safe learning environment.

They disproportionately impact the educational futures of our Black, Latino and special education students.

And their use is out of control here in Chicago, where every single day hundreds of students are suspended out of school and dozens more are arrested.

As chair of the Illinois P-20 Council, it is my responsibility to put more young people and adults in our state on the path to higher education. But there is simply no way that we can do this while our school discipline system actively forces students out of school and onto the streets, the criminal justice system, or both.

Under pressure from groups like Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), the Board of Education on Wednesday is taking a step in the right direction, voting on a new Student Code of Conduct that puts stronger limits on the use of extended, multi-week out-of-school suspensions.

This is progress—too many students have lost too many days for truly minor, non-violent offenses such as using Facebook or bringing a phone to school. But Mayor Emanuel and his schools team must do more.

In May, I met with two senior officials from Denver Public Schools at a meeting convened by VOYCE. Since working with students and community members to re-write Denver’s discipline code in 2008, they had overseen a series of reforms that ultimately reduced school-based police tickets by 68% and out-of-school suspensions by 40%. Underlying their work was the strong commitment to reducing the disproportionate impact that suspensions, expulsions and arrests have on students of color, particularly Black and special education students.

That same commitment from the top is tragically lacking here in Chicago, where federal data released this year has shown that African-American students are suspended five times more than their white peers—the third highest black-white disparity in the country.

If Mayor Emanuel and his schools team are serious about ending these disparities, they must implement three key changes: First, they can follow the example of Denver by reserving the most extreme punishments—suspensions, expulsions, and arrests—for only the most serious offenses. Then, they must release timely, school-level data on the use of these measures to the public to make sure that progress is made. And lastly, they must hold all our publicly-funded schools, including charters, to the same standards for keeping all our students in school, safe and learning.

As a lifelong advocate for Chicago’s youth, I know that true change requires leadership and commitment. Mayor Emanuel and Board of Education cannot drag their feet with half-measures. They must take a stand against the senseless policies that are forcing our most vulnerable students out of school and into the streets.

Let’s restore common sense to school discipline. It’s what’s right for our classrooms, our communities, and most importantly, our kids.

Miguel Del Valle is a former mayoral candidate and Chicago City Clerk and previously served in the Illinois State Senate for two decades.