A group of Chicago students is ratcheting up the pressure on state lawmakers to get behind "common-sense" school disciplinary policies.
Student leaders with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) argue zero tolerance discipline policies have resulted in zero gains in schools across the state. Dozens of students demonstrated at the Chicago Public Schools' (CPS) downtown headquarters Wednesday morning before marching to the Thompson Center to call on state officials, including Gov. Pat Quinn, to fix "broken" school discipline policies across Illinois. The group wants state lawmakers to set limitations on the use of disciplinary actions that eat up classroom learning time and have a disproportionate impact on students of color.
"Students want to stay in school. Students want to learn, and they want discipline (policies) that make sense," said Jose Sanchez, VOYCE's Safe Schools Consortium coordinator.
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.
"That's a million days of lost learning, a million days of instruction, a million days of students not being in classrooms," Sanchez stressed.
Students on Wednesday urged Springfield lawmakers to support pending state legislation that seeks to set stricter standards on the way in which schools administer suspensions and expulsions. The legislation, SB 3004 and its companion bill HB 4655, looks to apply provisions of the school code disciplinary policy to charter and alternative schools. The legislation also mandates that publicly-funded Illinois schools would be prohibited from issuing monetary fines as a disciplinary consequence.
An initial version of the legislation, sponsored by State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood) and State Rep. William Davis (D-East Hazel Crest) in their respective chambers, passed through the House and Senate education committees in late March. Since then, language in the legislation has been changed. Some specific clauses that have been stripped from the bill include provisions on when schools are permitted to use justice-system interventions or have students arrested for certain offenses. Those changes came after some districts pushed back against certain mandates in the bill. The newest version of the legislation has been referred to the House Rules and Senate Education committees.
Not long after the initial measure passed through committee, officials with the Noble Network of Charter Schools sent a letter to parents on April 8 stating that the network will no longer use it controversial practice of issuing a $5 fee to students for detentions. Noble has 14 campuses in Chicago, serving some 9,000 students.
"That was a major victory for VOYCE, and I think it's really indicative of the progress that we're making," Sanchez added. "One of the aspects of our bill is doing exactly that in the state of Illinois, eliminating the use of discipline fines as a form of discipline ... For a student in a low-income community, $5 could mean the difference between either having or not having dinner that night."
But getting rid of disciplinary-related fees is just one part of the larger problem of extreme discipline actions, particularly at charter schools, the student activists argue. For example, charter schools in Chicago expel students more frequently than other public schools in the district.
Privately-run charters in Chicago, which serve about 50,000 total students, had 307 expulsions last school year. During the same year, just 182 students were expelled from district-run public schools, which have a total enrollment of more than 353,000.
When it comes to out-of-school suspensions, CPS touted news in February that the district has seen a 36 percent decrease in that form of disciplinary action since the 2010-2011 school year. CPS credits the drop in out-of-school suspensions to changes the district made back in 2012 to its student code of conduct regarding school discipline. The district moved away from zero-tolerance policies and scaled back disciplinary actions that can take students out of the classroom.
Going forward, the district said it will ramp up efforts to further reduce suspensions and expulsions, including installing more restorative justice programs in schools and providing charter operators with some of the same “alternatives to expulsion” intervention programs that have helped reduce expulsions in district-run schools.
That announcement from CPS came on the heels of new school discipline guidelines rolled out by the Obama administration earlier this year that call on educators to abandon harsh policies, like suspensions and expulsions. While announcing the new guidelines, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "Racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem today, and not just an issue from 40 to 50 years ago." According to the U.S. Department of Education, black students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white counterparts to be expelled or suspended.
Sanchez called the federal school discipline guidelines a "great first step."
"Students of color are the ones who suffer the most because of exclusionary discipline, so the White House making these announcements is a good thing and backs up what VOYCE and VOYCE students have been saying for years now," he noted.
Out-of-school suspensions in Chicago public schools may be on the decline, but Sanchez pointed out that black CPS students were still over 30 times more likely to be expelled than white students in the 2012-2013 school year. Also last year, about 96 percent of the CPS school-based arrests were of black or Latino students, according to discipline data from the district that VOYCE analyzed.
Students are demanding that CPS and other school districts across Illinois take swift action to curb extreme discipline policies and address the problem of racial disparities.
“Illinois students cannot afford this slow pace of change when it comes to our education,” said Jennifer Vasquez, a sophomore at Kelvyn Park High School. “I was suspended for two days for wearing open-toed shoes. While students need consequences, how does missing school make anything better?”
CPS officials agree that "keeping students in the classroom and connected to their school communities is important," CPS spokesman Joel Hood told DNAinfo Chicago following VOYCE's action. That's why CPS "revised its disciplinary policies to focus on instructive and corrective responses to misbehavior, resulting in a 36 percent drop in out-of-school suspensions for high-school students over three years," he said.
Hood, however, said the district has some concerns about the pending school discipline legislation.
"While CPS and VOYCE are aligned in their efforts to reduce suspensions and keep students in school, SB 3004, 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," he noted.
Nonetheless, Chicago students plan to keep the heat on state lawmakers to support the measure.
“The situation is clear,” said VOYCE student leader Jamie Adams, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School. “Without our proposed state legislation, Noble would not have ended the use of fines, and districts will continue their current path of overly harsh discipline."
Photo courtesy of VOYCE.