Editorial: Suspending black CPS students is no solution
Editorials March 11, 2012 6:56PM
Watch a video of a Chicago Public Schools freshman talking about her experiences with CPS’ student discipline code. Davisha Junius, who is involved with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, has been kicked out of three schools.
Updated: April 13, 2012 10:25AM
Suspending a student from school works — in the short run.
Chaos excised. Message sent. Order temporarily returned.
But increasingly, educators are finding that a trigger-happy suspension policy doesn’t keep kids safe or deter bad behavior long-term. “We send kids home for five days and they come back and what’s changed?” Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard told the Sun-Times. “Nothing. There’s been no intervention, no conversation with the two parties to create peace.”
A 2011 report by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research backs this up. Chicago schools with high suspension rates, the report found, are less safe than schools with lower rates. What helps make schools safe are positive relationships between staff and students.
Too bad, then, that CPS is the poster child for this failed strategy, particularly for black students.
Black CPS students made up 45 percent of the enrollment in 2009-10 but 76 percent of students who received at least one out-of-school suspension that year, according to federal data released last week.
How can this be? For one, many black students are clustered in the lowest-performing, poorest schools where social problems and weak academics create a tough climate to manage. Add to that a dearth of supports to help change behavior.
Then, la piece de resistance: a discipline code that promotes punishment over intervention.
“A lot of principals suspend because that’s what the discipline code calls for,” said Kenyatta Stansberry, a star principal who has worked at several neighborhood high schools. Plus, she said, most schools lack the supports, in the form of social workers or extra staff, to do much else.
Nationally, and in Chicago over the last four years, there has been a slow shift toward more constructive discipline that teaches and rewards good behavior and intervenes before misconduct escalates. This doesn’t preclude tough punishment — principals say they need suspensions as a last resort.
But increasingly educators are finding that the first line of defense is making a whole-school effort to teach kids the skills they need to avoid getting in trouble — how to walk the hallway, how to enter the cafeteria peacefully, how to take a breath instead of swinging first — followed by more intensive supports for kids who need it.
“We were punishing [students] for things they may or may not have been taught, shown or enforced at home,” said Gerald Morrow, another highly regarded principal who now leads Robeson High.
The shift — which is bearing fruit with fewer referrals for expulsions and increased attendance at schools doing it in earnest — is just beginning in Chicago. The good news is that Brizard is a big proponent of moving away from zero tolerance punishment.
At his last job, running the Rochester, N.Y., public schools, Brizard did away with out-of-school suspensions in favor of in-school suspensions and started a systemwide basic social skills programs.
Some Chicago schools have these programs but Brizard wants them at all schools — something we’ve heard before but has never materialized. CPS must prioritize this and hire more staff to support the effort.
CPS also is working on a rewrite of the discipline code, due by July. Brizard says he wants to reduce the opportunities for principals to suspend, something we strongly support. The student group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education is working on the rewrite with CPS and is skeptical, but Brizard assures us he’s on board.