PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday April 27th, 2015, 4:50pm

Illinois Legislature Poised To Reform School Discipline Policies

Last week, the Illinois Senate passed legislation that would reform school discipline policies. Progress Illinois takes a look at the pending bill, now under consideration in the Illinois House, and the problems it aims to address.

By a 38-16 vote, the Illinois Senate on Thursday passed legislation seeking to limit the use of exclusionary school disciplinary actions, like out-of-school suspensions or expulsions, that eat up classroom learning time and disproportionately impact students of color and those with disabilities.

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) sponsored the Senate measure, SB 100, which would prohibit publicly-funded Illinois schools, including charters, from using "zero tolerance" discipline policies, unless otherwise required by law.

A key goal of the measure is to "limit the number and duration of expulsions and suspensions to the greatest extent practicable," according to the legislation.

"The students who are being tossed out of the school environment are the very students who should be kept within school boundaries at all costs," Lightford said in a news release. "We need to keep young people in school learning how to succeed and off of the street corner learning how to fail. Expulsions and suspensions should only be a last resort."

The legislation -- pushed by the Campaign for Common Sense Discipline spearheaded by Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) -- has arrived in the House, where it is pending in the Rules Committee. If the measure clears the House and is signed by Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, elementary, secondary and charter schools would have to implement school discipline policies that meet the bill's requirements by September 15, 2016.

VOYCE campaign director Quentin Anderson said his group is optimistic about the legislation's prospects in the House. State Rep. William Davis (D-East Hazel Crest) is the chief House sponsor of the bill, which currently has no opposition from education organizations, Anderson said. 

Youth leaders with VOYCE were prompted to push for "common-sense" school discipline legislation at the state level after learning that out-of-school suspensions and expulsions are being used frequently in Illinois public schools, Anderson explained.

For example, there were more than 272,000 out-of-school student suspensions at publicly-funded schools across Illinois in the 2011-2012 school year as well as some 2,400 expulsions and over 10,000 arrests, according to VOYCE's data analysis of figures from the U.S. Department of Education's civil rights division.

Across the state, more than one million days' worth of instruction time were lost during the 2009-2010 school year as a result of exclusionary discipline actions like out-of-school suspensions, VOYCE found.

During the 2011-2012 academic year in Illinois, the suspension rate among African-American students at the high school level was 25 percent, 19 percentage points higher than white students, according to a recent national report from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. For Latino students in Illinois high schools, the suspension rate was 10 percent.

Illinois was among four U.S. states that were tied for having the fifth highest black-white suspension gap in the nation for high school students, the UCLA report released in February showed.

At the national level, black students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white counterparts to be expelled or suspended, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And special education students, who represent just 12 percent of those enrolled in the nation's schools, make up 25 percent of students receiving multiple out-of-school suspensions, 19 percent of students expelled, 23 percent of students referred to law enforcement and 23 percent of students that are placed under a school-related arrest.

"The purpose of this bill is to keep our young people in school," VOYCE youth organizer Sarah Johnson, 20, said of SB 100. "As our bill states, it's for minor offenses, and it's under local school discretion. And so our whole point is for the culture of our school system to shift from zero tolerance to more of restorative justice, and to give our young people the chance to thrive in our education system."

Under the pending state legislation, school officials would be allowed to use short-term out-of-school suspensions of three days or less "only if the student's continuing presence in school would pose a threat to school safety or a disruption to other students' learning opportunities." Those rules would also apply to disciplinary removals lasting longer than three days, which could occur only after "other appropriate and available behavior and disciplinary interventions have been exhausted."

In the event of a student suspension or expulsion, schools boards would have to report the reasoning behind the disciplinary action.

Among other requirements outlined in the bill, suspended students must be provided with an opportunity to make up their classwork for "equivalent credit" and schools would have to provide "appropriate and available support services" to students facing disciplinary actions taking them out of the classroom for more than four days.

Additionally, the measure would ban the use of disciplinary-related fees in schools and school districts would have to establish re-engagement policies for disciplined students.

Mariame Kaba, founding director of Project NIA, a Chicago-based non-profit that works to promote community-focused responses to youth violence and crime, said it is important to limit the use of exclusionary disciplinary actions in schools, as they can be associated with negative outcomes for students.

"The longer that you are out of school, the less likely it is for you to return," she said. "It puts you behind in your work. It makes it much more difficult for you to catch up with your peers, which kind of compounds your educational disadvantage. So, the longer you're out of school, just the worse outcomes you end up getting ... If you limit the length of suspensions, the idea is that you don't have that much to fall behind on, and you can be reintegrated into school more easily."

Carlil Pittman, 22, a VOYCE youth leader from Chicago, said he knows how disruptive exclusionary school disciplinary actions can be in terms of student learning. When Pittman was a sophomore at Thomas Kelly High School in Chicago's Brighton Park neighborhood, he was expelled for cutting a class. Pittman said he wished school officials would have offered him an opportunity to reform his behavior before they resorted to expulsion.

"I think there should have been some kind of restorative justice" approach taken, he said. "Something like a peer jury or even detention or staying after school to help out with something or some kind of probation. Something to keep me in school, not taking me out. That incident made high school very difficult until I graduated."

After being expelled, Pittman said it took him three months to find a new school to attend, after being rejected by about four high schools.

"Everyone saw me as a problem child because I was kicked out of school," Pittman said.

Pittman had to attend summer school as a result of being expelled, but he ultimately graduated on time at Gage Park High School. Being expelled made Pittman determined to "prove" that he was a good student, he said, adding that his mother gave him the "extra push" that helped him get on the right track at school.

"Some students don't have as much support as I've had, or don't think about it the same way I do, and that same situation could just change their whole course of life, them not even finishing school," Pittman said.

SB 100 comes after last year's passage of state legislation requiring, in part, that Illinois schools publicly report data on disciplinary actions by race, gender and other categories. VOYCE and the Campaign for Common Sense Discipline also advocated for that bill, SB 2793, which former Gov. Pat Quinn signed last August.

On a related note, Project NIA is holding a Thursday discussion with Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials on "making sense of school discipline data." The free event, which will focus on CPS data, is open to the public. Click through for additional details on the discussion, which will run from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at the CPS Colman Network Office, 4655 S. Dearborn St. 

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