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D65 shifts to in-school alternatives to suspension

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Disrespecful, aggressive or threatening behavior and physical violence were the primary reasons for suspensions at Evanston/Skokie District 65 schools last year.

A report to the Evanston/Skokie District 65 School Board shows that those two causes resulted in 94 of 147 incidents, and 162 of 266 days suspended.

Although the data does not break down those incidents by race, the report shows that while the total number of suspension incidents has decreased over the last four years, black students were still suspended at nearly three times the rate of white students.

District 65 administrators acknowledge the disproportionately high rate of suspension for black students, but emphasize that the number of suspensions overall has dropped in the last few years.

Administrators point to a strategic plan adopted in 2015 as well as changes to school board policy as the beginning of a significant change in the district’s approach to suspensions, representing a “huge effort to look at suspension and train staff in the appropriate interventions for all children,” says Joyce Bartz, assistant superintendent of special services.

“We want to shift from the harder tool of suspension to the inclusive tool of restorative practices,” says Superintendent Paul Goren, “and that means alternatives to suspension and working through conflict.”

“Part of our agenda is to pay attention and be transparent about the data and dig deeply into the facts,” says Goren.

“If black students are being suspended at a rate that far exceeds the other students,” he adds, “that information goes directly to school climate teams,” who are responsible to analyze data and determine what to do differently.

What to do differently involves a wide range of approaches. The district adopted Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports many years ago, says Bartz, but it isn’t enough.

PBIS in conjunction with other interventions such as restorative practices, school climate teams, and Social and Emotional Learning practices, “is a better model for working with young people that we think will be more effective,” she says. “It’s a combo package.”

But is race a factor in the suspension of an individual student? Some of the reasons for suspension seem straightforward, such as alcohol, drugs or weapons behavior, while other criteria, such as being disrespectful of school authority or disrupting or distracting behavior, can seem subjective and be influenced by a teacher or administrator’s perspective, experience and expectations.

The state of Illinois “accepted the role that bias plays in our society,” says Andalib Khelghati, assistant superintendent at District 65, referring to Public Act 100-0014, which mandates training for teachers in understanding and overcoming implicit bias. “Our teachers are committed to understanding the challenge.”

“There’s research from early childhood that argues that a white child’s behavior may be seen in a less offensive or aggressive manner than a black child’s as early as three or four years of age,” he says.

“There’s work to be done until everybody understands how that translates into behavior to support all children in an equitable and thoughtful manner,” he says. “It’s not about whether a child is black or white. It’s what does that child need and what are the systems and interventions we’re putting in place for those children?”

Dan Coyne, a social worker with District 65 schools, sees discipline as a whole spectrum of interventions, though imposing discpline is not his role.

At times he may be asked to get involved when a teacher and a student have a conflict in the classroom. “I offer to give the adult and child a break in a moment of tension.”

“I give the child a time out to walk down the hall to my office,” to calm down and talk about the situation.

“It’s not a disciplinary action. It’s not a letter to a parent,” he says. “The focus is on how to restore the relationship.” Later he’ll have a brief conversation with the child and the teacher so they can talk about what happened and clear the air. 

When suspension seems appropriate the district’s policy includes a range of options according to a presentation to the Board in February. A suspension of three days or less is allowed “if the student’s continuing presence in school would pose a threat to school safety or a disruption to other students’ learning opportunities.” This determination is made on a case-by-case basis, and “fights do not always lead to a threat to school safety.”

A suspension longer than three days is allowed only if all other interventions have been exhausted and the student’s presence in school may substantially interfere with the operation of the school. A 3-day suspension cannot be imposed for a first-time offense.

District guidelines required that suspensions be immediately reported to parents in writing, with details of the incident and information about the right to appeal. Support services are provided to students during a suspension longer than four days.

Though suspensions disproportionately affect black students, the data shows that overall, fewer than 2 percent of students were suspended last year.

“It serves our children better when they are in school, when they resolve their conflicts and concerns together with adults and with the children around them,” says Goren.

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