When researchers looked at the profiles of CPS high school students who were most likely to be disciplined in their schools, a startling statistic emerged: 30 percent of students with a documented history of being abused or neglected received out-of-school suspensions in the 2013-2014 school year.
That rate was higher than the rate for students with other risk factors, such as extreme poverty or having entered high school with lower test scores than their peers.
Students with many of these attributes are concentrated in a small subset of district-run high schools – the so-called “schools of last resort” that serve primarily black students. It’s these schools where the rates of out-of-school suspensions are the highest — and they’re driving the district’s overall racial disparities in discipline, according to a new report by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research.
“Obviously, it’s very depressing,” said Consortium Director Elaine Allensworth, that the students who have been abused and neglected and are the furthest behind academically are so much more likely to be suspended than other students. “If we really want to have a strong educational experience for all students, we need to rethink how we’re doing that for the most vulnerable students in the schools that are serving them.”
The Consortium’s new report, issued on Tuesday, is a wide-ranging look at the causes for racial disparities in CPS suspension rates, as black males continue to be the most at risk for suspension. (Catalyst has been writing about racial disparities in discipline since 2009.)
The report is based on data from district-run high schools; data on substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services; survey information from teachers and students; and qualitative interviews with teachers and administrators.
Among the findings:
- At one of every four district-run high schools, a third of all students received out-of-school suspensions. These are also the schools with the highest rates of in-school suspensions and arrests at schools.
- Black boys and girls are far more likely to attend schools with high suspension rates: 39 percent of all black boys at district-run high schools, and 34 percent of all black girls, attend one of these schools. But when it comes to Latino, white or Asian boys or girls, less than 2 percent of each of these subgroups attends one of these schools. (See graphic below.)
- All of the high schools with high or moderate suspension rates had below-average incoming achievement and above-average poverty rates. On the flip side, not a single high school with high achievement or low poverty had high suspension rates. “When you see such a stark pattern, you can’t say that people aren’t trying hard enough at those schools; there’s something structural going on,” Allensworth says.
- Which school a student attends is a stronger predictor of suspension than any other risk factor — including race, gender and poverty. But black males are likely to attend schools where the average suspension rate across all students is 26 percent.
- A 2012 CPS policy to reduce the length of suspensions has had mixed results: Attendance improved — as fewer students missed class due to out-of-school suspensions; however students and teachers reported a worsening school climate, while test scores did not improve.
“It’s really hard to have a strong, academically focused, safe and orderly climate,” Allensworth says. “As staff are struggling to make that happen, kids are getting into trouble and suspended. So you have a cycle, a lack of trust that develops.”
The report, which focuses primarily on out-of-school suspensions, does not take into account suspensions at charter, contract or alternative schools, primarily due to differences in how discipline is tracked. One of every four CPS high school students attends one of these schools.
Overall, suspensions have declined in recent years at district-run schools. About 25 percent of all high school students were suspended from school at least once in the 2009-2010 school year, compared to about 16 percent in 2013-2014. An earlier report from the Consortium noted the overall downward trend of high school discipline, although in-school suspensions were replacing out-of-school suspensions at some schools.
CPS data for the full 2014-2015 school year have not been released, although the district had previously released partial data that suggests a further decline. District officials did not provide any comment for this story.
“Urgent call for action”
Ilana Zafran Walden, chief operating officer of the Umoja Student Development Corporation, said the Consortium report should be an “urgent call for action” to address continuing disparities in disciplinary practices.
“So many of our schools and young people that have the highest need are also the same students and young people who are being underinvested in and not getting resources,” Walden says. “Despite some good-faith efforts, and potentially some good beginning progress, there are still huge equality challenges that we need to tackle if we’re going to get a good education for our young people.”
Budget cuts have left schools with fewer counselors, social workers and psychologists, at a time when the social and emotional needs of some students “is really at the scale of a public health issue,” Walden says.
“When schools still suspend students at a high rate, it really speaks to the magnitude of issues that schools are supposed to tackle,” she said. “It’s not that individual kids are being bad. It’s that the supports our students need are so much bigger than what one person or program or intervention happening for six months can take on. Schools feel potentially like they have no other choice but to suspend students.”
The Consortium report also looks at the types of “additional supportive practices” schools offer students when a suspension occurs, including restorative justice or conferences with parents. While schools varied widely in their use — or reported use — about half of all suspensions were given without any extra support.
The use of restorative practices has risen in recent years, but limited resources make it tough for administrators to offer sufficient staff or professional development opportunities on using those practices. In the 2013-2014 school year, there was one counselor for every 255 students in grades 6 through 12, one social worker for every 550 students, and one psychologist for every 830 students, the report notes.
“It takes someone to sit down, talk to these young people, find out what these issues are and address them,” says Michael Brunson, recording secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union. “It takes a full-time position to do that. The district has given a lot of lip service to these things for the past couple of years and hasn’t put the funds behind it.”
Restorative justice in practice
In addition, Brunson notes that many schools with the most troubling discipline rates are also those which have had high teacher turnover — including some that have been “turned around” by the district, meaning the staff was fired and had to reapply for their jobs. Veteran teachers, he says, have more experience with classroom management and can find ways to deal with unruly students without resorting to suspensions.
“When you have this big churning of teachers and you end up with a lot of first-year teachers that don’t even come from the community and aren’t used to dealing with students or classroom management, it adds to this,” he says. “Teachers that have been in place for a while have solid relationships with those students and have built respect, so they can influence or help them control their behavior.”
Brunson says changes to the CPS Code of Conduct — prompted by pressure from student and activist campaigns — may have led to fewer expulsions and shorter suspensions. But he worries that school staff are being discouraged from using suspensions and expulsions but not given any resources or training to address the behavior issues.
“Restorative justice is being interpreted as an anything-goes program,” he says. “Johnny acts up in the classroom. The teacher is already in an overcrowded classroom and sends him down to office. They send him right back. And nobody has talked to Johnny to figure out what’s wrong.”
Jose Sanchez, the safe schools consortium coordinator for the organization Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), says that at many schools, the staff member charged with running a restorative justice program “has a much bigger load and can’t dedicate 100 percent to it, maybe only 50 percent.”
Sanchez, whose organization helped push through a state law this year to curb disparate disciplinary practices, says the research validates student leaders’ calls to bring a “racial equity lens” to the issue.
“We need to be explicit about who is impacted the most, who is not impacted as much, and make sure that we’re thoughtful and explicit about this when coming up with solutions,” he said. “When you have the folks who are most impacted be part of a solution-making process and you’re able to have these explicit conversations about race and economics, you can be real and have pretty powerful conversations.”
*This story was updated on Sept. 22, 2015, to include this graphic and data on what types of high schools different student subgroups attend.