Kelvyn Park High School students have differing opinions on how the school should deal with drug use. One says suspension just gives students more time to get high. But another says the staff should be more strict so students will be deterred from using. [Photo by Bill Healy] Credit: Photo by Bill Healy

Cory Warren and a group of his classmates at Phillips Academy High School had a challenge: Work with a community organization to try to convince their peers that drinking and taking drugs are bad ideas. 

Alcohol and drug abuse are virtually never talked about in Chicago Public Schools, even in high schools, he says. Yet teens can be especially susceptible to peer pressure to drink and do drugs, and the consequences for drug-related offenses in CPS can be severe.

“I think in elementary school they told us not to smoke squares (slang for cigarettes), but no one said anything about marijuana,” Cory recalls. But pot-smoking and drinking are all around him, he says—on the street, in his home and in one particular hallway at school. As a football player, Cory stays away from it. And he desperately wants his younger brother to follow suit.

In this day and age, recreational marijuana use is legal in two states and technically only warrants a ticket in Chicago. So Cory and his classmates choose a nuanced message for their skit, one that focuses on the negative impact of coming to school high and getting drunk at prom. 

“Your eyes are super-red and you are going to be in space in class,” Cory says. “So even if you are going to do it, wait ’til after school.”

Getting caught on drugs or carrying drugs in CPS carries consequences beyond the academic that range from a short suspension to arrest; non-punitive or educational responses are outside the norm, especially for schools in poor communities. Though the district’s revised Student Code of Conduct is intended to make discipline more equitable and send the message that students should only be suspended if they are a danger to themselves and others, non-violent drug possession ranks as the second-most serious of infractions, and drug sales rank as the most serious, along with arson and rape. 

As a result, thousands of students face stiff consequences for drug violations that mostly involve less than 30 grams of marijuana—just over an ounce.  

Over the past two school years, 2,300 students were suspended for drug use, possession or sale; 527 had an expulsion hearing, though only 22 were eventually expelled; and 1,066 were arrested, according to data from the state’s School Incident Reporting System, CPS and the Chicago Police Department. (Expulsion data are through April 30.)

The numbers contribute to the district’s overall arrest rate, which is more than double the rate in New York City and Los Angeles, though Chicago has fewer than half the number of students (see story on page 8).

When police get involved in drug cases, 99 percent result in an arrest. Police are called to schools far more often for incidents of assault or battery, yet only about 25 percent of these incidents result in an arrest.  

While some schools are quick to mete out harsh punishment, other schools let small-scale drug offenses stay off the radar. 

One Gage Park High School student, an African-American girl, said she came to school high most of the time for many years. The security guard and some teachers and administrators knew she was smoking marijuana and commented on it to her. But there were no other consequences.

Eventually, she says her foster mother realized how bad the problem was and got her into a drug treatment program. “I just needed someone to talk to,” says the young woman, who cannot be identified because she is a ward of the state.

At Kelyvn Park High School, one young Latino man says the first time he was caught with some weed, his parents were called and that was that. The second time he was suspended. But his friend adds that students at the school get suspended for relatively minor offenses. 

In some schools, drugs, especially marijuana, are not a big deal given the other challenges in a community. “The students here have many problems,” says Ali Muhammad, principal of Austin Polytech, a small West Side High School.  “Drugs are just one of them.” 

Kathleen Kane-Willis, interim director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy, notes that youth drug use is much more complicated than adult drug use. Even some who support legalizing marijuana think that young people should face some consequences when they come to school with it or on it. 

Yet Kane-Willis worries about policies that are not consistent. In a study the consortium released in the spring, she found that people in Chicago are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession while people outside the city are more likely to be ticketed—despite a Chicago ordinance that allows for such ticketing. 

These differences extend to schools and districts, something that worries Kane-Willis.

“If you don’t have a clear policy, then it is like the wild, wild West,” she says. “It is the variation in the system that makes it unjust.”

As the perceived risk of marijuana use goes down, its use among teenagers is on the rise, according to a recent survey by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  Surveys have shown that there’s little difference between city and suburban teens in the level of drug use, but young people with greater access to money and resources are more likely to use hard drugs like heroin and cocaine.

In many suburban school districts, officials have incorporated education and treatment programs into their response to the problem. Some Chicago schools refer teens to programs, but the district has no systemic approach to providing students with intervention services.

Still, it is impossible to get a comprehensive look at how school districts outside of Chicago approach drug use. State law requires that districts report drug-related incidents, as well as students caught with firearms and attacks on school personnel. But a 2012 Chicago Tribune investigation found that districts were ignoring the law, which was supposed to help parents determine the safety of schools.

Following the Tribune’s investigation, big school districts, such as Chicago, Naperville and Plainfield, started reporting incidents. But at this point, only about 16 percent of all public school districts in the state have met the mandate. The Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois State Police, which are in charge of collecting the data, say they don’t have the manpower to force compliance.

In the past two years, 139 school districts have reported more than than 3,000 drug-related cases. 

By and large, the most common punishment for students caught with drugs is suspension. And as in Chicago, disparities exist. School districts with more than half low-income students are much more likely to have students arrested than other schools, and slightly more likely to expel students. 

Though anecdotal, many suburban school officials say that they offer students treatment or education to keep suspensions down or in lieu of suspension altogether.

Just this year, Shepard High School in southwest suburban Palos Heights began contracting with Rosecrance Drug Rehab Center. A Rosecrance therapist comes to Shepard once a week to provide therapy for students who have been caught with drugs or who came to school high or under the influence. 

“We backed off of kicking kids out,” says Carleton Rolland, assistant principal at Shepard. “We want to help the kids. We want to get them on the right track.” If the student continues to show up drunk or high, administrators will encourage their parents to place them in an inpatient or outpatient treatment program, he says.

Rolland says he has never called the police to arrest a student for a drug offense, but he does call police to have them come to impound the drugs.

At Stevenson High School in the well-to-do suburb of Lincolnshire, the school district has a policy in place to handle drug use and possession, but it is “not a sweeping blanket approach,” says the school’s spokesman. The Stevenson guidebook says that officials may refer students to the school resource officer, the title that many suburbs use for the police officer stationed at their school.  It also says that school officials may suspend students or recommend them for expulsion.

But to lessen the punishment, students can agree to go to a program run by Omni Youth Services twice a week for about eight weeks. Cristina Cortesi, Stevenson’s first-ever substance abuse prevention coordinator, says the educational program, called Seven Challenges, aims to get students to think critically about their decisions.

In the past, a second offense could result in expulsion. But Cortesi, who was hired this year, says they are piloting a program in which second-time offenders are referred to a more intensive 12-week program, which can either be inpatient or outpatient. 

After completion of the program, school officials consider whether an expulsion is necessary, she says.

Cortesi also runs multiple voluntary support groups for students who are thinking about their drug use or who are currently enrolled in or have completed a treatment program. 

At Stevenson, every student with a first offense agreed to participate in the Omni program, Cortesi says. However, she reports that at another high school where she previously worked, some students would rather take a long suspension instead.

“That is frustrating,” she says. “We’re limited in the scope of what we can do at that point, other than enforce school discipline policy.”

She says that if students continue to get in trouble with drugs, they are told they will be expelled. “But at that point, consequences are not going to make the difference,” she says. “Treatment makes the difference.”

Gun and drug offenses are now the only two categories of offenses that require police notification under the new CPS Student Code of Conduct. Some suburban school districts leave it up to administrators, saying that police “may” be notified. 

Mathilda de Dios, an outreach worker for Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center, says she would like to see student arrests for marijuana offenses become a non-option. “In a city willing to ticket adults, we have a double standard,” she says. “There is no reason why we should hold youth more accountable.”

It’s more important, she points out, for schools to address substance abuse problems with help.

Up until now, the only way a CPS student could be referred to the district’s discipline intervention program is to go through an expulsion hearing. The new code of conduct allows principals to ask for a referral directly.

Joel Rodriguez, an education organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project, says the option is a positive change. But the intervention program, called SMART, takes place on Saturdays at a downtown location and often students must wait for weeks to get admitted. 

Despite the code of conduct’s shift in policy, a critical missing piece remains, according to Rodriguez and other activists: Lack of money for social-emotional programs to help students deal with problems such as substance abuse. 

Some schools, on their own, develop relationships with outside organizations and then make their own stipulations for students. Farragut High School’s dean of discipline, Francisco Torres, says his school this year developed a relationship with a local health center that operates a counseling program for students. He referred 10 students to the program in lieu of suspending them. 

The end result: Only four students were suspended in 2014 for possession or sale of drugs, down from 17 in 2013, according to the state’s School Incident Reporting System.

Torres says that students don’t think that using marijuana is a problem. But from his point of view, drug use and gang activity are intertwined. “If we can stop them from using drugs, we can also stop them from gang-banging,” he says.

Other schools rely on parents. Lincoln Park High School reported 68 drug-related incidents in 2013 and 39 in 2014, according to the Reporting System. Of those, 56 were for drug use, 51 were for possession and selling. Most of the students who had drugs were suspended. But in 20 percent of the cases, 23 overall, school officials checked off the “other” box.

Dean Donovan Robinson says that in recent years, fewer students have been caught coming to school high on drugs or with drugs on them. 

“We can sit down and talk to them and get their parents on the phone,” says Robinson, who gives the confiscated drugs to police and throws paraphernalia in the garbage. 

Cecilia Farfan, assistant principal at World Language High School, says that students must be arrested if they are found in possession of drugs. But that doesn’t happen often; last school year, Farfan says, the school had only one drug possession case. The student brought three or four baggies of marijuana to school and was charged with possession with intent to distribute. 

“We were surprised it was him. He comes from an extremely good family,” Farfan says. 

She says she has had students suspected of being high or drunk. But it is tricky. “Sometimes we call the parent and tell them to pick the student up for a day because it is a liability.”

The school does not have money for prevention programs or for counseling, whether for substance abuse or other issues. Counselors try to help students who seem to have problems, but mostly by referring them to outside resources. 

“We have to concentrate on academics, test scores, reading, ACT preparation,” Farfan says. “Drug counseling and prevention is not something we spend money on.”

Rick Velasquez, executive director of Youth Outreach Services, says that he definitely sees a difference in how drug use in schools is viewed and handled in CPS versus the suburbs. Youth Outreach Services, which has a contract with Cook County to provide juvenile diversion programs in Chicago and throughout the suburbs, serves a mix of wealthy and poorer suburbs as well as the city. 

“Suburbs are more likely to take the health perspective,” he says. “They also are concerned about liability.” 

Velasquez says that at one point, his organization was hired to do programs in CPS, but that work has fallen by the wayside.

“The schools are so focused on performance and test-taking that they don’t look at the whole child,” he says. “They don’t look at them holistically.”

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Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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