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Editorial: Roll back suspensions at Chicago Public Schools

PamelLewis member Voices Youth Chicago Educatitalks about changing “code conduct” for CPS students last July 14.  |  Brian

Pamela Lewis, a member of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, talks about changing the “code of conduct” for CPS students last July 14. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 28, 2012 6:22AM

For years, the student discipline code for the Chicago Public Schools has largely focused on a single goal: Punishment.

Consider the high schooler who acts out on the bus on Monday and then on Tuesday uses his cellphone at school. Under Chicago’s discipline code, such repeat offenders can serve up to a 10-day suspension.

And they often do.

Suspensions have been the default punishment for serious offenses and for repeat offenders in Chicago for years, costing students 306,731 days of school last year, according to Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, a student group pushing for a limit on suspensions and school-based arrests.

Black students are disproportionately impacted. They made up 45 percent of CPS enrollment in 2009-10 but 76 percent of students who received at least one out-of-school suspension that year.

Suspensions may help in the short term — removing a disruptive kid is a clear plus for teaching and learning — but research suggests it does little good in the long run. A 2011 report by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research found that Chicago schools with high suspension rates are less safe than schools with lower rates. What helps make schools safe are positive relationships between students and staff, the researchers found.

On Wednesday, a revised discipline code is up for a vote before the Board of Education. The revised code would begin to move CPS away from strict punishment and toward a school system that, at least on paper, is committed to changing student behavior, not just punishing it. The board should approve the new code, while acknowledging that the attempt to build more peaceful, constructive environments in CPS’ toughest schools has only just begun.

The new code would limit the opportunities for a principal to suspend; encourage more in-school suspensions; reduce the maximum number of suspension days, and emphasize corrective approaches, such as peace circles or social skills instruction, as the first response to misdeeds.

Principals would still be able to hand out a 10-day suspension for the most serious offenses, such as bringing a gun to school, as they should. But the kid who acted out on the bus and misused his cellphone would no longer be kicked out for 10 days. Instead, he or she would face corrective actions and in- and out-of-school suspensions for up to five days.

Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard ended out-of-school suspensions in his previous job in Rochester, N.Y., and this is the first step to move Chicago in that direction. But to really be successful, schools need supports — the staff and training to teach kids the right behavior before they act out.

CPS has begun to lay a strong foundation for that work, but those supports are not available in all schools yet nor are they adequately staffed. Brizard believes in this work. It’s his job to make it a top priority for Chicago’s schools.

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