For the Record: Digging deeper into suspensions data

February 11, 2014

CPS has spent the last week touting what officials say is a big decrease in suspensions, culminating with a school visit and press conference by Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday, where the mayor declared that curbing suspensions was just the “right thing to do.”

But a confidential document obtained by Catalyst Chicago shows that suspension data from last year is more troubling than something to boast about. Last year, young elementary-age students were suspended far more than in previous years.

Plus, the racial disparity in suspensions of black students compared to whites and Latinos—long a problem in CPS and something that current CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett says she cares personally about—has widened over the past few years. (Catalyst Chicago has been covering the issue of racial disparities in discipline since 2009.)

The statistic that officials are playing up is a 23 percent decline in high school suspensions, from 46,000 in the 2010-2011 school year to 36,000 in the 2012-2013 school year. But the drop occurred at the same time that enrollment in traditional, district-run high schools has fallen by more than 6,000 students.

The enrollment decline in traditional school is a critical factor because of the simultaneous increase in students at charter schools--where CPS does not collect information on suspensions. Charter schools do not have to adhere to the CPS discipline code and often have tougher discipline than in traditional schools.

When asked about the current disparities at Tuesday's press conference at Wells, Byrd-Bennett said district officials have yet to analyze last year’s data and that she would not comment until she has “accurate” information.

Mariame Kaba of the group Project Nia, says the organization pushed for the district to provide detailed school-level information because overall data “tells us little.” CPS is supposed to release the school-by-school data broken down by race and gender within a few weeks. Project Nia won a huge victory by getting CPS to release the data. 

“We need to know where the issues are so we can address them,” Kaba says. “It is not enough to know that we are trending in the right direction. We need to know if we are trending in the right direction at certain schools, among certain racial groups. We need to know if we are addressing the issues where most of the issues are.”

CPS officials stressed that the PowerPoint dated December 2013 and obtained by Catalyst was a draft. However, the City of Chicago’s data portal has had school suspension rates posted for at least two months, and the data appears to come from the same source as the PowerPoint.

According to the PowerPoint:

-- Among pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students, suspensions increased 48 percent between school year 2012 and school year 2013, even though the Student Code of Conduct does not allow the use of either in-school or out-of-school suspension among young children.

--Every elementary grade level posted an increase in suspensions.

--Areas with predominantly black elementary schools saw the biggest year-to-year increases, while areas with white and Latino student populations stayed about the same or experienced a decline. The Englewood-Gresham, Burnham Park and Austin-North Lawndale areas posted steep jumps in elementary suspensions.

--Among elementary school students who were suspended, 80 percent were black in 2012-2013, compared to 76 percent in 2010-2011. In comparison, just 40 percent of students in CPS are black.

 --Among high school students, 71 percent of those suspended last year were black, up from 66 percent in 2010-2011, according to state and CPS data.

CPS spokesman Joel Hood notes the long-standing problem of racial disparities and says the district clearly has more work to do reduce the gap. Hood also says that though much of the district’s effort to reduce suspensions has been aimed at high schools, district officials are concerned about reducing suspensions in elementary schools and preschools. 

At the press conference on Tuesday, Byrd-Bennett said she attributes the drop in suspensions at the high school level with a 2012 change in the student code of conduct. The change instructed principals to suspend students for only a maximum of 10 days for the most serious offenses, and reduced the maximum number of days allowed for lesser offenses. 

According to the PowerPoint, both elementary and high school students are missing fewer days due to suspension.

Byrd-Bennett says the district will further revise the code of conduct to ensure that no child is suspended for minor infractions, such as having a cell phone.

Byrd-Bennett and Emanuel also said there has been a change in philosophy since they took over the school system, saying that they have encouraged the use of strategies like peace circles and peer juries to address student misbehavior and avoid suspensions.

However, it is unclear how many schools have implemented these restorative justice practices, or what resources the district has put toward helping schools develop programs. At Wells, the school has extra resources as part of a three-year, $5.7 million federal School Improvement Grant. The grant will run out this year.

Tomale Williams, a junior at Wells High School, recalled that he often got in trouble and was suspended numerous times in elementary school and in his first years in high school. As a young black male, Williams felt targeted for harsher discipline.

But last year, the principal of Wells took him aside and got him interested in being a part of the peer jury.

“This taught me a lot of self-discipline and my grades increased from Ds and Fs to As and Bs,” Williams said.

Emanuel added: “Peer jury instilled in them a sense of who they are. It gave them ownership of accountability and responsibility.”