As warm weather set in at the end of the school year, Marshall Principal Kenyatta Stansberry had her staff organize Peace Day, with sessions on conflict resolution. Students who had lost friends and family to violence let go of balloons in remembrance. Credit: Jason Reblando

The rules of Marshall’s in-school suspension room are written on the chalkboard at the front of the class: “No laughing. No cell phones. No talking. No putting your head down on the desk.”

If a student finishes his or her work, a table is piled with books to read. There’s also a worksheet they can complete, designed to make them think about their behavior.

At a big neighborhood high school, an in-school suspension room might seem par for the course. But at Marshall, the strategy has been tried before, failed before, and in recent years, didn’t exist.

With the turnaround, however, it made sense to try it again. In the 2009-2010 school year, two-thirds of Marshall’s students were suspended at least once, the second-highest out-of-school suspension rate among the city’s high schools. Out-of-school suspension is a strong predictor of low test scores and high dropout rates, two outcomes the turnaround administration wanted, and needed, to rectify. 

CEO Jean-Claude Brizard also has pinpointed in-school suspension rooms as one strategy to lower out-of-school suspension.
But it’s not at all clear that in-school suspension rooms, at least as they are often implemented in CPS, will have the positive impact that supporters hope for. In fact, the data suggest the opposite.

Over half of CPS high schools had in-school suspension rooms in the 2009-2010 school year, according to the latest figures from the Illinois State Board of Education. But on average, these schools handed down out-of-school suspensions to more students than those without in-school suspension rooms, a Catalyst Chicago analysis found.

One explanation is that schools with in-school suspension rooms have more serious, discipline problems than those without.

Another explanation is that CPS has no standards for in-school suspension rooms, so they are little more than holding cells that offer little or no education or counseling to help change behavior. A Catalyst survey of 53 high schools found that in the 16 with in-school suspension rooms, supervision was provided by a variety of people, from substitute teachers to school deans. Only two schools had counselors who could talk to students about their misbehavior.

At Marshall, problems were evident early on. The room’s first attendant had no real experience working with teenagers.
One day in mid-September 2010, the attendant tells students to follow the rules.

But instead of listening, the two young women repeatedly ask for permission to use the restroom. Two of the young men have their heads laid down on the desk, chewing straws and looking bored. The fifth won’t stop teasing one of the girls. She goes from laughing at his jokes to acting annoyed. 

Then, one of the boys decides he needs a drink of water and gets up. The attendant tells him to sit down and stands before the front door, but the boy bolts out the back. 

Tired and defeated, the attendant picks up his radio and tells the hall security to watch for the boy.

Within two months, the man was fired for mishandling a student.

Creating a good in-school suspension program is a feat. In Brizard’s previous position as superintendent of Rochester, N.Y., schools, he assigned a teacher, a counselor and social worker to each room.

There is no such program in Chicago. If a school provides any significant social support, it is often the result of happenstance.

At Mather High School on the North Side, Cosmin Moraru is a history teacher who had just earned his counseling certificate. About the same time, Mather’s principal received a grant to implement some programs as alternatives to out-of-school suspension.

The principal decided to keep Moraru on, but assign him to man an in-school suspension room.  Moraru developed a protocol, starting with a pre-placement interview with students about their behavior, to make sure they are open to changing it.

On the other three days of the week, Moraru holds in-school suspension. The day starts with a three-hour group therapy session in which the focus is on modeling behavior and discussing how students can change their reactions to situations. After lunch, the students do their homework.

Moraru limits the number of students in the room to 10. The room has a potted plant, and Moraru plays classical music while students are doing homework.

“We try to make it so this is not so much a negative thing, but an alternative,” he says. 

After a year of running the room, he boasts some pretty good results. Eighty percent of students who were sent to in-school suspension never returned and were not suspended out-of-school.

At Marshall, Principal Kenyatta Stansberry never had the same luck finding a person who felt equipped to run the type of in-school suspension room that might have a positive impact, like the one at Mather. Stansberry also didn’t get complete buy-in from teachers for the discipline approach she was trying to implement.

Much of the professional development training conducted in the month before school began centered on how to manage a classroom and build trust with students. Teachers were taught the Boys Town Education Model, which focuses on managing behavior, building relationships  and teaching social skills. The method stresses teaching specific life skills, such as looking a teacher in the eye when asked a question, and having teachers learn ways to talk to students to defuse disruptive behavior.

But within a few months of the school year starting, many teachers had abandoned or modified the techniques. By December, math teacher Sofia Orlowski was darting around her classroom giving students stamps for good behavior.

The freshman-level teachers, upset that students they had sent to the dean’s office were often not punished, created their own in-school suspension room, called “Think Tank.” During periods when they didn’t teach classes, 9th-grade teachers took turns in the Think Tank, where students were required to write a reflection on their behavior, including a letter home to their parents.

Other teachers didn’t see in-school suspension as sufficient punishment. One spring day, Dean Derrick Bass was highly upset that a teacher had emailed Assistant Principal Angel Johnson complaining that a student wasn’t sent home for cursing at her. 

Bass says he already told this teacher that he could send the boy to in-school suspension or try to arrange for a parent-teacher conference. But the teacher is still not happy.

Bass tells Assistant Principal Matt Curtis that even though it is late in the year, he still has to show some teachers the district’s code of student conduct and explain to them the idea of progressive discipline.

“At the end of the day, you can’t give a death sentence for stealing a turkey,” Bass says. “This issue gives me a headache.”

After the first in-school suspension attendant left, Stansberry put a student advocate in the in-school suspension room, with a promise that he would be able to resume his normal duties as soon as she could find a replacement.

About a month and a half later, she replaced the advocate with Lonnie Felters Jr., a physical education teacher who was still working on obtaining his certification to teach in Illinois.

“He has a good relationship with students,” Stansberry says of Felters. “He will be fine.”

Felters started out with a good attitude about the position. 

But by the end of the year, he was not happy. He had shoved a bookshelf against the backdoor to keep students from escaping. The same kids were in there on a regular basis. Many of them were special education students with behavior problems who, by state law, could not be  given more than 10 days of out-of-school suspension.

Most of them refused to do any work and instead spent their day just trying to bother the other students. “One bad apple can ruin it for the whole group,” he said.

Felters says he wishes he could limit the number of students sent to in-school suspension or that there were multiple teachers who could work with students one-on-one. He also says he thought a dean should be in the room so that they could threaten out-of-school suspension and it would be a real threat.

“Sometimes I wake up in the morning and dread coming here,” he says. “It is that bad.”

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Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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