Evanston/Skokie District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren says the current political environment is partly to blame for a near doubling of suspensions this school year.

District 65 administrators say suspensions through December reached 80, compared to 42 in the same period last year. 

“After the 2016 presidential election we’ve seen a rise in more open bullying,” Goren says. For example, a kid will turn to somebody of Latinx background and say, “The wall’s going up.” Or “a kid will feel license to use their voice in a much more angry way.”

But beyond the political climate, Goren says, there is a need to make sure that “kids feel engaged and recognized and assisted and cared for in the classroom and in the school,” so they step back from crossing a line.

The district’s suspension policy was changed before he became superintendent four years ago, Goren says. The board was concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline and “overrepresentation of kids of color and especially young black children who were being suspended at higher rates than other kids.”

The policy stated that every offense with a suspension over five days must go to the superintendent’s desk.

There was also an attempt to ratchet up the alternatives to suspension program, in which social workers work with children and parents to try to address root causes instead of just suspending the kid.

“We saw some drops in suspension,” Goren adds, “but there’s a feeling in the environment that kids might be acting up a bit more now.”

Paula Zelinski, president of the Distrct 65 Educators’ Council, says more kids are coming to school in crisis.

“Our teachers have faced a growing challenge to serve students who may not be responding to classroom-based interventions,” she says, “and the district’s response has not kept pace with the number of kids who desperately need resources and supports.” 

Goren says that, after settling the teachers’ contract last year, the district added an extra day of planning for teachers that had been taken away eight or nine years ago. To cover the kids during that planning day, social workers were hired and now teach classes on social, emotional and equity learning.

The goal is teaching children how to “de-escalate, contain their emotions, work together in a group and control themselves when they’re in a situation that might push their buttons.”

Goren says that teachers can also include social and emotional skills within their own lesson plans.

“With the additional social workers and psychologists,” he says, “we are doing the best we can to provide services to kids who are coming with a wide range of concerns.”

While acknowledging changes, Zelinski says, “Teachers are looking for a continuum of supports for kids and classrooms that will help serve kids who really need them and avoid suspension.”

“We also need more social workers, more behavior interventionists and more training for all teachers in order to support our kids.”

Goren outlines a systemic approach to suspension, setting up school culture and climate teams to look at the data they have – how many suspensions, who is being suspended, by race and by gender – and then determine what can be done to build a sense of community, safety, and relationships.

In 2015, the State of Illinois changed its suspension policy with Senate Bill 100, which banned “zero-tolerance policies” and required school systems to limit the use of suspension and expulsion as much as possible except for weapons or drug offenses or when a student substantially poses a threat to the school community.

The Illinois Education Association suggests that the school board should work out changes to the teachers’ contract regarding suspensions, including how a threat to safety is defined and how to support students while on suspension and when they return.

In the last contract, Zelinski says, “We bargained several new pieces of contract language. In particular, there was great concern with kids in crisis being returned to classrooms without any discussion with the teacher or plan for moving forward.”

Though the new language attempts to address this issue, she adds, it continues to be problematic.

Going forward, Zelinski said, “We will be reviewing all the requirements and mandates of SB100 and will work with the district to create strategies and plans to address the needs of the students.”

“We would like to see IEA play a role in developing and creating plans to support student learning and behavior,” she says.

But Goren says he doesn’t know if further changes are needed to the contract.

“We share the importance of serving our kids,” he says, but “I hesitate to create something siloed,” so that only someone with expertise would deal with a child who has an issue.

“Kids spend the lion’s share of time in the classroom,” he said. “Rather than something in the contract, it might be professional learning opportunities on the social and emotional learning side.”

“All of the adults in the building have to understand the range of issues that kids have, across all levels, all races, all economic groups,” he added, “and use the expertise that the district has to create an environment conducive to learning and opportunities for resolution of issues or concerns.”

Related stories

District 65 to discuss rules as suspensions soar (2/24/2018)

District 65 to address equity in revising suspension rules (2/27/2018)

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  1. Suspension rates

    Whem Goren attributes some of the increase to the political climate inattentive readers May think he means Trumpist white folks. But only four white kids were suspended in total, so he must be talking about other kids behaving that way.

  2. Irresponsible Hypothesis

    Dr. Goren’s assertion that the increase in suspensions–namely, in suspensions for certain kinds of behavior–is connected to political climate is reckless and unsubstantiated. I’m surprised that a well-educated superintendent would make such a claim without evidence (or sound judgment).

    According to the data provided, the biggest increases are for Disrespectful, Aggressive, or Threatening Behavior, following by Physical Violence, and Theft. Suspension incidents by Black and Hispanic students doubled from over last year.  While Violence and Theft are not subject to individual interpretation and standards, Disrespectful, Aggressive, or Threatening Behavior is. 

    In light of these data, it seems that Dr. Goren is suggesting that political climate is motivating some Black and Hispanic students to engage in more Disrespectful, Aggressive, Threatening Behavior and Physical Violence. Black and Hispanic students are feeling empowered by Donald Trump to act out? Seriously? What qualitative evidence from suspension reports supports that hypothesis? 

    There has been an increase in suspension incidents at all three middle schools over the last two years – at Nichols and Haven more than at Chute, which might attributable, in part, to teacher tolerance and principal leadership at those schools. The catalyst of political climate is a stretch, to say the least.

    Notably, last year, there were no suspensions during this period at Rice School This year, there have been 9. I very much respect the work, teachers, and students at Rice, but it is a school that (by design) is for students with significant behavior and emotional challenges. But, again, would Dr. Goren suggest that political climate is playing a role? Hope not.

  3. Oh, if only Hilary would have
    Oh, if only Hilary would have been elected. Suspensions would have dropped by 90%! This liberal, B.S., agenda in public schools must end.

    On opening day of school, it is the responsibility of the administration to make it crystal clear to students and parents alike what behaviors will not be tolerated and which are punishable by suspension. If the student does not abide, bye bye. Race, gender, hair color…doesn’t matter.
    By the way, if someone uses the identifier Latino or Latinos (the Spanish language identifier that has been getting the job done for quite some time) instead of “latinx”, is that a punishable offense?

  4. Odd
    This is an odd explanation. Previously the suspension rules were being adjusted because black students were being suspended at higher rates…now he’s claiming political harassment? Are black students telling Latin kids the wall is going up?

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