Students rally for bill to limit suspensions and expulsion, ban discipline fines

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Students from Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) rallied in the Loop Wednesday to build support for student-drafted legislation that would eliminate monetary fines imposed for disciplinary reasons in schools, as well as limit out-of-school suspensions and expulsions.

The proposed bill, SB3004,   is now pending in the state Senate. The crowd of students and supporters from the Campaign for Common Sense Discipline in Chicago Public Schools marched from CPS headquarters to the State of Illinois Building to urge lawmakers to support the bill.

VOYCE has called attention to harsh discipline in CPS, and has also been among those criticizing charter discipline policies, which are often tougher than the CPS Student Code of Conduct.

Noble Street Charter Schools have come under fire not only for a strict discipline code but also for levying hefty fines against students for relatively minor infractions.  Last week, Noble Street announced it would drop one of its more controversial fines, the $5 fee assessed against students who earned detentions.

“We want common sense discipline, instead of the zero-tolerance policy we have now,” said Mariama Bangura, a junior at Roosevelt High School. “Schools need to support their students, not kick them out for minor issues.”

“Keeping students in the classroom and connected to their school communities is important to the District, which is why CPS revised its disciplinary policies to focus on instructive and corrective responses to misbehavior, resulting in a 36% drop in out-of-school suspensions for high school students over three years,” said CPS spokesman Joel Hood in a statement. “While CPS and VOYCE are aligned in their efforts to reduce suspensions and keep students in school, SB3004, as drafted, places strict limitations on administrators’ ability to manage school safety and could potentially interfere with law enforcement’s jurisdiction and ability to enforce safety on school grounds or at school-sponsored events.”

Though high school suspensions have declined, elementary suspensions have risen dramatically in recent years, Catalyst found, and the racial gap in disciplined has widened.

Harsh discipline has a disproportionate impact on African American male students and has long been an issue in CPS. School discipline is also in the spotlight nationally, with federal education officials urging districts to find ways to keep students in school instead of suspending and expelling them.

In addition to banning fines for discipline infractions, SB3004 would amend the Illinois School Code to put limits on the actions that could lead to suspension or expulsion. For one, students could only be expelled “for posing a significant threat of imminent serious harm to other pupils or to staff” instead of for the more subjective “gross disobedience or misconduct.”

Students could be suspended, for not more than 10 days, for “a serious act of misconduct” rather than “gross disobedience or misconduct.”

“I’m the first one to take action if a student is disrupting my class, but I see kids being suspended and expelled for minor infractions all the time,” said Roosevelt teacher Tim Meegan. “This undermines my ability to teach and hurts the students.”

The student group was joined by Jessica Schneider from the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc., who, echoing other experts across the country, said school discipline has become a civil rights issue. Schneider pointed to data showing black students in CPS are 30 times more likely to be suspended than whites, and said that disciplinary fees are an exclusionary practice that further disadvantages low-income students.