Suspensions down, schools feel safer, but charter data still absent

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Members from Voices of Youth in Chicago Education speaking about the Student Code of Conduct, which CPS has changed in recent years to reduce expulsions and suspensions. (File photo)

Photo by Mark Chong Man Yuk

Members from Voices of Youth in Chicago Education speaking about the Student Code of Conduct, which CPS has changed in recent years to reduce expulsions and suspensions. (File photo)

Chicago’s growing chorus of advocates for restorative justice in schools have reason to feel encouraged by the most recent data on school discipline: Expulsions and out-of-school suspensions fell dramatically across the board in the 2013-2014 school year.

CPS released more data on Wednesday showing a continued decline. During the first semester of the 2014-2015 school year, 17 percent of misconducts led to an out-of-school suspension, compared to 41 percent for the first semester of last year. The expulsion rate per 100 students was cut in half.

Meanwhile, a new report released today by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research found that students and teachers report feeling safer as harsh discipline practices have eased. That’s another good-news finding, since some observers feared that cutting arrests and suspensions would worsen school climate and security.

However, the report also notes that Chicago still has a lot of work to do to further reduce suspensions of young black men, who are still the most likely to be kicked out of school for discipline reasons. One-third of black males received an out-of-school suspension last year, compared to 13 percent of Latino boys and 6 percent of white and Asian boys.

Other Consortium findings:

  • Some schools are replacing out-of-school suspensions with in-school suspensions: Out-of-school suspensions for black male students declined by about 3 percent, while in-school suspensions rose by 7 percent. Most other groups also saw slight increases.
  • Most suspensions in high schools are handed down for “defiance,” with only a third the result of fights or other threats to safety. The report notes that with so few suspensions for physical altercations, schools probably have more room to cut suspensions without compromising safety—but teachers need training on how to deal with students they perceive as being disrespectful.
  • The overall arrest rate for high school and middle-grades students was 2 percent, but the rate for black males was double that, according to Chicago Police Department data analyzed by the Consortium. Schools called police for just 43 percent of serious incidents that require police notification under the district’s discipline code.

The Consortium plans two future reports: One will examine variations in discipline among schools and the second will look at alternative and preventive discipline strategies.

Charters missing

Still, there is one glaring omission in the data: The lack of statistics on suspensions among charter schools. Proponents of restorative justice, a policy that encourages counseling and mediation as an alternative to kicking misbehaving kids out of school, say the lack of data raises questions about an otherwise positive trend.

Based on expulsion numbers—the only data available for charters—the downward trend may well be a wash: Reversing a decline since 2011, last year’s charter expulsion rate was higher than that of traditional schools.

“Overall, we’re absolutely moving in the right direction, and that’s all part of the general trend we’ve been seeing in the past five years or so,” says Miriame Kaba, founder and director of Project Nia, an advocacy group focused on ending youth incarceration. “But charters have to be brought in line. They need to be brought under the same rubric of transparency. Otherwise, we’ll never have an accurate picture of what’s happening.”

The question is particularly critical given the growing enrollment in charters, most of which are not required to adhere to the district’s discipline code.

“If the district [is] truly dedicated to [restorative justice], you’ve really got to wonder why they continue to promote the expansion of charters,” says Jackson Potter, a staff coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union. “These schools have a notoriously poor record when it comes to answering these questions.”

Although CPS this year hired about 100 “restorative practice coaches” and appointed a “social-emotional learning” coordinator for each of its 14 school networks, a recent Chicago Tribune article pointed to several schools still lacking the requisite resources.

“When you don’t have the staff or the infrastructure to address incidents, what you end up with is this revolving door of crisis,” Potter says. “And when that’s the default, you’re going to see a lot of overburdened teachers dealing with problems in ad-hoc and haphazard way, and that will only exacerbate these problems.”

CPS has amended the Student Code of Conduct three times in the past decade—in 2007, 2012 and 2014—to soften punishment for misconduct and shift toward restorative justice and away from “zero-tolerance” discipline.

Autonomy, transparency?

Catherine Chandler Deutsch, director of data and policy for the Illinois Network of Charter Schools, says independent accountability measures for charters are an unavoidable byproduct of their independence.

“It’s incredibly hard to get a snapshot of students from every angle when you subscribe to one broad policy” shared across the district, Deutsch says. But when each school has its own approach to counting misconducts, it can develop a laser-focused strategy tailored to its own teachers and students. The result of this kind of individualized data-gathering, she says, is “social workers who have a really robust picture of which strategies are working and which aren’t.”

But for policy experts like Dan Losen, keeping discipline records out of the public eye is deceptive at best.

“For the state not to be requiring charters to be releasing this information is really counterproductive. Charters are all about school choice, but if parents don’t have adequate information about each school’s discipline climate, they can’t make an informed choice,” says Losen, the director of the Los Angeles-based Center for Civil Rights Remedies. “They need to be held accountable to federal civil rights laws, and we have no way of knowing if they’re doing things like suspending kids on the basis of race or disability.”

Plus, he added, withholding data on discipline may end up working against the charter operators themselves.

“We ought to be able to see what they’re doing right, as well as what they’re doing wrong—the whole point of charters is for districts to be able identify the good things they’re doing and replicate them,” Losen says. “There are a lot of charters out there doing great, innovative things with restorative justice, and we should be able to see those and highlight them.”

By and large, Deutsch says, charters have latched on to restorative justice. Instituto Justice and Leadership Academies and North Lawndale College Prep, for example, are vigorously embracing strategies like peace rooms and peer juries to resolve classroom conflicts.

CPS officials say they’re confident they can encourage charters to follow their lead on discipline.

“We’re encouraged by the collaboration we have with charters so far, and we’re sharing a lot of our restorative practices with them,” says Aarti Dhupelia, the district’s chief of college and career success. “And we’re continuing to talk to them about stronger data sharing…that’s something we’ll have more of going forward.”

Deutsch says charter operators are now working with the district to merge their data indicators, and charter data should be included within the next few years.

But, says Losen, “if you’re trying to decide between a [traditional] public school and charter school, you need to know if charters are continuing with this [zero tolerance] policy that’s proven so ineffective. Otherwise they’ll just keep churning through students and send them back to traditional schools, where they could drop out altogether.”

Deputy Editor Sarah Karp contributed to this report.

  • Susan

    Students with IEPs are protected by federal law when it comes to suspensions and expulsions. They cannot be suspended or expelled unless it is determined that the behavior was not a product of their disability. If they are out a certain amount of time educational services must be provided for them through an alternative school, home schooling, etc. Unless the schools are following the correct procedures they are violating these kids’ civil rights.

    • Northside

      I AGREE sit in a university with eager young students makes you forget the violence in a school. I just feel bad for the good.kids who.sit in quiet hell as the disruptive students get.more press and protection than they do. Who.speaks.foe.them very few good.kids want the violence to.rule their schools. Just ask them

  • newnodm

    “you need to know if charters are continuing with this [zero tolerance] policy…”

    Zero tolerance? Like gum chewing results in expulsion? “Zero tolerance” is just a cheap way to spin the fact that most charters are less tolerant of misbehavior than traditional urban schools. Many parents consider charter discipline policies a benefit, not a problem.
    Parents who desire a more relaxed disciplinary environment for their children have their pick of many high drama neighborhood schools. Perhaps Chuy will be elected mayor and these schools can return to the 5.5 hour school day! We don’t want to expect too much from black and brown children, now do we?

  • Northside

    I also think that we need to ask families to tell their children to respect their teachers. Cps is doing its part. The students also need to show respect. They are not 100 percent innocent angels as we all know. Some of their behavior is bordering on criminal and immoral. Those teachers who have to.spend their days playing police man in their classroom, know that the other children are paying for disruptive behavior . why doesnt catalyst do a piece on the students who have to deal with violence and disruption in their schools

    • newnodm

      Are not the most disruptive students reflecting what they have learned at home? As a coach I assume that most of the treatment I receive from children mostly reflects their home life.

      I don’t recall the need to tell my own children not call teachers an “f’ing bitch”, or to refrain from hitting other students.

      Once again we have university researchers and reporters who would never send their own children to a high poverty school telling principals that a reduction of suspensions is desirable.

  • Northside

    I will make an analogy. Limiting the amount of suspensions then saying that schools are getting safer is like a hospital limiting heart surgery then saying that heart problems are down. Obvioulsy it is a bit flawed…but lets face there are bad kids and bad teachers. However, I would like to know how the teachers feel…do they feel supported? do the principals feel supported? a REAL survey by an independent source!! Like an accounting firm..not a university