More transparency on suspensions and expulsions, but racial disparity lingers

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UPDATED: With the Obama administration taking a stand Wednesday against zero-tolerance discipline that forces students out of school, CPS is readying itself for a major release of detailed school-level statistics on expulsion and suspension.

The upcoming data release is the result of a huge battle activists won when CPS agreed to not only post information for individual schools, but also to provide detailed breakdowns by demographics, including race, and disability.

The agreement is another step forward in creating more transparency on discipline in the district. CPS has come under harsh criticism for having one of the highest suspension rates in the nation, as well as stark racial disparities in who gets suspended and expelled.  

Prior to CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s administration, school-level information was only obtained by the media and advocates through the Freedom of Information Act.

Yet there will still be a big missing piece: Information on charter schools and school arrests, which will not be included when the data is posted by the end of February. The information collected by the district is currently too incomplete to be reliable, said Mariame Kaba, founding directory of the juvenile justice advocacy organization, Project NIA.

(Also, any category of students that is fewer than 10 will be redacted due to a federal privacy law.)

Kaba announced the agreement between CPS and a coalition of advocates at December’s School Board meeting.  She says CPS leaders also agreed to hold three summits on discipline.

Collecting demographic information on suspensions and expulsions and using it to improve student outcomes is one of the recommendations in guidelines issued jointly by the departments of justice and education on Wednesday.

The Obama administration guidelines also recommended public school officials use law enforcement only as a last resort for disciplining students. The guidelines note that suspensions and expulsions lead to “serious educational, economic and social problems” and suggest that districts explicitly limit exclusionary discipline and require that steps such as restorative justice or social and emotional skill-building be taken before disciplinary action. 

On Wednesday, the citywide student advocacy group, VOYCE (Voices of Youth in Chicago Education), urged the city and the state of Illinois to adopt the guidelines. Marshawn Earvin, a student at Dunbar, said he was suspended for three days for saying something disrespectful. He says he was falsely accused.

But given the strong correlation between suspensions and subsequent dropping out, he says he is fighting to stay in school and make the situation better.

“I will not be another statistic,” he said.

The Chicago Teachers Union leaders issued a statement saying they welcomed the guidelines and noted they have long advocated for alternative discipline measures. However, they emphasized that implementing such alternatives requires an investment in such staff as social workers, psychologists and counselors.

CPS spokeswoman Keiana Barrett says that the district is “aggressively” examining its discipline procedures and already has working groups looking at the issue. District officials plan to roll out a comprehensive program aimed at implementing restorative justice and stemming the “school to prison” pipeline later this month or in early February.

They also are considering adopting the federal guidelines.

Racial disparities

CPS’ current administration has been quietly making information on discipline more available. This year, for the first time, school progress reports include the suspensions per 100 students, as well as the average length of suspensions. An analysis of this data shows that CPS’ suspension rates are high and the racial disparity is enormous.

Suspension rates increased for elementary schools, as well. At elementary schools that are predominantly African American, the rate was 27 per 100 students last year, up from 21 per 100 in 2012. At schools that had substantial populations of white students or a mix of white and Hispanic students, an average of 2.7 students were suspended in 2013, no change the previous year.

In high schools, there were an average of 52 suspensions for every 100 students and the racial disparity was even starker: At predominantly black high schools, there were 83 suspensions for every 100 students. At 14 schools there were more than 100 suspensions per 100 students, meaning that multiple students are being suspended multiple times.

Meanwhile, at predominantly Latino schools, there were 27 suspensions per 100 students. But  schools with significant white enrollment, or a diverse student body—typically the selective high schools or North Side schools—recorded only 17 suspensions for every 100 students.

Illinois and Chicago have come under harsh criticism regarding student discipline, after studies and U.S. Department of Education statistics pointed to some of the highest rates of suspensions and widest disparities in the nation. A 2012 study by the Civil Rights Project at the University of California-Los Angeles found that, compared to any other group of students in the nation’s 100 largest districts, black students in Chicago had the second highest rate of suspension. At the top of the list was Henrico County Public Schools, which includes Richmond, Virginia.

 

Big picture still not clear

The federal statistics and other research use state data, which has a lag time of several years. Plus, it is difficult to get data broken down by race, gender and disability.

The lack of good information prevented experts from being able to see the big picture of discipline in CPS, says Jessica Schneider, staff attorney in the educational equity project at the Chicago Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law. Her organization often represents students at expulsion hearings.

“We can address individual cases, piece by piece, but it is hard to make any big changes,” she says.

Having suspension and expulsion information readily available also will aid organizations in making their case for alternative disciplinary measures and figuring out which ones work.

CPS’ Code of Conduct emphasizes restorative justice, such as peace circles and peer juries, over harsh discipline such as suspension and expulsion. But use of restorative justice has been spotty, and many times depends on whether school principals work with a community group, which runs the peace circles and trains the peer juries.

Kaba said many of the community groups running these programs have been unable to figure out whether their work results in fewer suspensions and curbs harsh discipline.

The new data CPS will post “gives us an exciting opportunity to move beyond anecdotes,” she says.

Originally, the coalition of community groups and activists wanted CPS to have something similar to the New York City Student Safety Act, which requires quarterly reporting of student safety and discipline information to the City Council.

When Kaba brought the idea to Ald. Joe Moore, he suggested they meet Beth Swanson, who is Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s deputy chief of staff for education. She put them in touch with CPS’ head of safety and security, Jadine Chou.

Then, when John Barker came on board as chief of accountability, he was immediately clear that the information could easily be made available. Last year, he put the first discipline indicator on school report cards.

Advocates are now planning to lobby to get the Board of Education to pass a resolution promising to make the information available in the future. Kaba says this would ensure that the practice continues after this current administration leaves office.