Aiming to rein in one of the highest suspension and expulsion rates in the country, Chicago Public Schools is again set to revise its Student Code of Conduct with the goal of creating more uniformity in how schools handle discipline. 

Among the proposed changes:

–Elimination of the vaguely-defined “persistent defiance” as misbehavior for which students can be suspended or expelled. CPS officials say “persistent defiance” is used unevenly to justify harsh discipline, in some cases against students who shrugged their shoulders or threw pencils across desks.

–Children from pre-kindergarten to second grade could no longer be expelled without a network chief’s approval. In the past, only preschoolers and kindergarteners were excluded from expulsion, though records show they were still suspended.

–Another offense, “unintentional physical contract with school staff,” would no longer warrant suspension. 

–Police would only need to be notified when students are found with drugs or guns on school grounds, or in emergency situations. The current policy lists 27 offenses for which police need to be notified, including participating in mob action and use of the CPS network to spread computer viruses.

–Unauthorized use of a cell phone would drop to the lowest category of offense.

 Activists and the Chicago Teachers Union said the changes are a step forward. But the real test will be whether the changes result in a fairer discipline process with fewer students being expelled or suspended, says Mariame Kaba, executive director of Project Nia, a community justice organization. She notes that there is still a lot discretion given to the principals.

Kaba points out CPS is not putting more money toward restorative justice practices or for interventions to prevent misbehavior. “For a number of years, I think there will be a tug and pull between the policy and the practice,” she says.

Since 2006, official CPS policy has called for schools to use restorative justice, but no extra money has been provided. Most of the work has been carried out by outside agencies and therefore comes and goes, Kaba says.

In a statement, the CTU applauded the changes but emphasized that CPS needs more social workers and counselors, as well as conflict resolution and restorative justice practices and a safe space for students to go within the school.

CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said that principals will be required this summer to attend professional development on the new Student Code of Conduct and network chiefs will have to bring it up at each meeting. Further, she noted that principal evaluations hold them accountable for the climate of the school and the number of suspensions and expulsions speak to that climate.  

CPS has promised to release suspension and expulsion data for individual schools this year and has promised to continue to do so.  

Despite the fact that the Code of Conduct emphasizes restorative practices, Byrd-Bennett said that CPS had the strictest zero tolerance proposals she’s ever seen. Even when she was consulting with CPS as the chief education officer, she says was worried about it and started some internal discussions.

In 2009, Catalyst Chicago reported that CPS suspended 13 of every 100 students—a higher rate than all other big urban school districts, with black boys disproportionately the target. In 2012, CPS made some revisions to the student code of conduct.

Still, the number of suspensions went up to nearly 70,000 in the 2012-2013 school year, up from 67,512 in 2011-2012, with the biggest spike  among elementary school students. 

District officials say that preliminary data shows they are down this year to about 50,000 or about 14 of 100 students in district-run schools.

About 75 percent of students suspended are black, though they make up only about 40 percent of CPS students.

CPS only has expulsion data for charter schools, but not suspension data. The expulsion data show that charters expel three times the number of students as district-managed schools. Charter schools are allowed to have their own codes of conduct and most of the expelled charter school students would not be expelled by CPS. Therefore, they are allowed to enroll in a district-run school.

Byrd-Bennett says she is working with charter schools on collecting suspensions data and trying to get them to adopt the district’s code of conduct. So far, 10 of them have.  


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Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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