Carrying signs demanding “pre-college, not pre-prison,” and “caps and gowns, not cuffs and bars,” high school students and organizers clad in bright blue and green t-shirts protested revisions to the CPS Student Code of Contact outside Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office on Monday.

The Chicago Board of Education revises and adopts the code annually and is scheduled to vote on the 2012-13 document on June 27. This year, leaders in Jean-Claude Brizard’s new administration spent many hours talking with student groups and community organizations about the changes they want to see.

Many of the groups are not happy with the results, saying that district officials did not go far enough in curtailing suspensions, expulsions and arrests.

“We hoped this would be the year for more dramatic changes,” says Charles Bergman of Community Organizing and Family Issues, a nonprofit opposed the district’s zero tolerance policies.

(Photo by Mark Yuk Chong.)

Bergman’s organization is participating in the High Hopes Campaign, a coalition of community groups that wants a 40 percent reduction in suspensions and expulsions .Bergman says one measure the coalition wanted is a graduated punishment system, so that students could not be suspended on the first offense if the misconduct wasn’t serious.

In its most recent presentation on code changes, officials said it will reduce the number of days that students can be suspended for certain acts. It also will eliminate the automatic 10-day suspension for the worst offenses. Principals could issue a five-day suspension and would have to justify any additional time.

Student and community groups say the revisions are an improvement, but they are disappointed that suspension remains an option for lesser offences, such as unauthorized use of the parking lot or using the Internet for something other than school work. They also are disappointed that officials didn’t change at all the police notification guidelines, leaving students vulnerable for being arrested at school for offenses that could be handled internally.

VOYCE, which stands for in Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, also would like charter schools, which are allowed to adopt their own codes of conduct, to be banned from doing certain things, such as fining students for misconduct.

On Monday, VOYCE delivered to the Mayor’s office and School Board offices its recommended code, based in part on codes used in Baltimore and Denver. It was accompanied by a letter asking: “Is the Board of Education on our side? Do you want us in Chicago Public Schools? Or do you want the most vulnerable among us, the students who need the most support, forced out onto the streets or into prison?”

Mohamed Dia, a sophomore at Gage Park High school and a member of VOYCE, told the crowd that, as a student who is undocumented, arrests at school are particularly worrisome for him. He said he was excited that President Barack Obama announced last week that some undocumented students will be allowed to stay in the United States. 

“For students to be eligible, they cannot have a criminal record,” he says. “CPS has done little to eliminate school-based arrests. CPS failure to address this potentially prevents students from reaching their goals.”

According to VOYCE, 2,546 students were arrested at school during the first six months of this school year, 82 percent for misdemeanor offenses.

“No one wants a safer school than we do,” said Alberto Brito, a junior at Roosevelt High School and a youth leader in the Albany Park Neighborhood Council. “But extreme discipline does not make our schools any safer.”

CPS officials say that many of the community groups’ suggestions have been incorporated and that the revised code is less harsh and gives principals and disciplinarians more discretion.

In addition, CPS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus says that under Brizard, there’s already been a nearly 30 percent reduction in expulsions and arrests. She says the administration is disappointed that VOYCE and other groups are still unhappy.

“We have told these groups that we do not intend to halt all disciplinary actions for certain infractions, as they suggest, because there are situations where different intervention practices may be appropriate,” she says.

 “Under the revision, the principal can choose to send a student to a peace circle or to send a student home,” he says. “For some things, there’s no reason for a student to be out of school at all.”

The High Hopes Campaign and VOYCE also would like to see more transparency around discipline. According to the CPS presentation, the district is going to include misconduct and “consequences” as part of its school monitoring system. However, there’s no commitment to make any of this information public.

Emma Tai, an education organizer for VOYCE, says that Denver Public Schools publishes “rich information” about suspension, expulsion and disproportionality and that principals have responded with changes.

Currently, it requires a Freedom of Information Act request to elicit this information from CPS or the Illinois State Board of Education, which also keeps this data. 

Photo by Mark Chong Man Yuk.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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