Seeing an opening with a new CEO and a new board of education, on Thursday a coalition of CPS students put pressure on the district administration to change tactics in how students are disciplined.

Too many students are suspended or expelled and too much money is spent on strategies like security guards and metal detectors—which serve to punish youth rather than help them change behaviors, according to about 75 teens who held a press conference in the lobby of district headquarters downtown.

“Schools are supposed to do things in the best interest of children,” said Carlil Pittman, a student at Gage Park High School who is involved with the Southwest Organizing Project.

Before enrolling at Gage Park, Pittman said he was kicked out of the first high school he attended after a minor incident. It took him a while to find another school to enroll him.

“Well, having me sit at home for a month was not in my best interest,” he said.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        

Pittman and the other students are part of a project called VOYCE, for Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, which brings together students from community organizations across the city, including Target Area Development Corp. on the South Side and the Organization  of the Northeast on the North Side.

Among other things, the students want CPS to rewrite its Student Code of Conduct and to give them a “seat at the table” when they do so. 

CEO Jean-Claude Brizard did not provide an immediate response to the students’ demands. However, in Rochester, New York, where he previously worked, he takes credit for reducing the number of out-of-school suspensions dramatically, mostly by creating well-staffed in-school suspension rooms.

The district’s high suspension rate has been a long-simmering issue. CPS has one of the highest suspensions rates in the nation, according to a 2009 report by Catalyst Chicago. In 2007-2008, about 50,000 students were suspended at least once, according to state data. In 2009-2010, the most recent data available, the number had dropped to 44,000, but that still mean that 4 out of 10 students had spent at least a day out of school as punishment.

Another thing that hasn’t changed: Out-of-school suspensions inordinately affect black male students. In 2009-2010, they made up 44 percent of students who were expelled at least once, but they make up only a quarter of the students in Chicago’s schools.

In recent years, other cities, such as Baltimore and Denver, have taken steps to revamp their discipline policies, making them more transparent and less punitive, said Jim Freeman, project director of the Advancement Project, a national advocacy group. Freeman worked with VOYCE to help the teenagers understand what steps could be taken to make CPS’ discipline picture more supportive of students.

“Instead of getting tough on students, CPS should get smart,” he said.

In the VOYCE report, the authors point out that CPS’ Student Code of Conduct encourages schools to use less harsh discipline that tries to teach young people to change behavior. But, they point out that the code dictates that students are punished through suspension and expulsion for specific infractions.

This “has resulted in a district-level approach to discipline policy that is drastically uneven at best, and at worst still looks very much like zero tolerance,” the students write in their executive summary.

At the press conference, VOYCE members said CPS spends far more money on things like metal detectors and surveillance cameras than on things like college counselors.

“Is that right?” one of the speakers asked. “No,” a chorus of teens answered.

According to the report, CPS spent $67 million on safety and security, not including school-level security guards.

Pamela Lewis, also from Gage Park, said her school had few working computers, overcrowded classrooms and old chalkboards. “Our schools don’t need more security guards and cops,” she said. “We need more [educational] resources.”

The report looks at four high schools and found disproportionate numbers of security guards compared to the number of counselors per student.

The authors of the study note that the Consortium for Chicago School Research has found that good relationships between students and staff are a better predictor of safety than the number of suspensions.

Also, the students point out that students who are suspended are much more likely to drop out and that costs society. Truancy, dropout and incarceration—all shown to be likely long-term consequences of suspension and expulsion—cost Chicago up to $240 million every year.

The students also called on district officials to reveal how disciplinary actions are used and how much they cost. Chicago should make data on the use of suspensions, expulsions, arrests and other disciplinary actions publicly available, including data grouped by grade, age, gender, race/ethnicity, disability and previous record, according to the report.
Freeman said that this has been done in other cities across the country.

Danny Vazquez, a student at Kelly High School, says he heard of an assistant principal who admitted to suspending 300 students in one month. Without any public reporting of suspension and expulsion data, there’s nothing to stop that, he said.

“We want the truth,” he said.

Responding to Freedom of Information requests, CPS has divulged school level and race level data to Catalyst Chicago. However, citing a federal privacy act, district officials redact certain information, which makes it difficult to get a handle on which schools suspend the most students.

VOYCE was originally brought together in 2007. Under the Arne Duncan administration and was funded with a $1.5 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. At the time, the students were asked to give their perspective on how to improve the graduation rate and came out with a report called “Student Led Solutions to the Nation’s Dropout Crisis.” 

In November of 2008, Duncan announced that he was implementing some of the recommendations the students suggested. Less than a month later Duncan was nominated for education secretary, but the next CEO, Ron Huberman, put $200,000 toward a pilot program recommended by the students that focused on the social-emotional needs of freshmen.

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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