Pope Elementary Credit: Joe Gallo

Elementary schools are cracking down on discipline problems by suspending a record number of students, most of them African American, a Catalyst analysis found. Schools say more resources and parental support are needed to handle unruly students.

Last year, the staff and local school council at McNair Elementary in Austin got fed up with student misbehavior—especially fighting, which McNair and other schools say is their biggest discipline problem.

McNair hired a full-time disciplinarian and told teachers to wear business attire and enforce rules without yelling. And the school adopted a “zero tolerance” policy toward fighting, which now results in immediate suspension.

The fights usually stem from petty arguments over “simple, childish, adolescent things—’He took my book-bag, he took my pencil,'” says James Sellars, a parent and local school council member who blames poor parenting for much of the problem.

Suspensions are an unfortunate necessity, Sellars says. “Zero tolerance may seem harsh, but what is our other alternative?”

McNair’s story illustrates the situation facing many elementary schools. While some educators say there are better ways to handle discipline, school staff say that they have too few resources—social workers and counselors, or money for teacher training—to better handle growing numbers of unruly children. As a result, more and more students, especially African Americans, are being suspended.

Significant racial gap

Between 1994 and 2003, the number of elementary students who were suspended has more than doubled, from 8,870 to 20,312, according to a Catalyst analysis of data from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). (Data for 2003 are the latest available. Chicago Public Schools denied a Catalyst Freedom of Information Act request for data, citing student confidentiality, although ISBE—which receives the information from the district—provided data and none of the statistics identify students.)

Catalyst also found that black students make up a disproportionate share of those suspended.

Between 1999 and 2003, the percentage of blacks among all suspended elementary students averaged 84 percent, while African-American elementary enrollment fell slightly to 50.5 percent, from 52.7 percent. More than half of students who were suspended in 2003 were African-American boys, the ISBE data show.

Black students are also overrepresented among those expelled from CPS (see story on page 10). Suspension rates for white and Hispanic students are lower than either group’s share of enrollment.

Meanwhile, suspensions in high schools have declined, as CPS officials have pushed high schools to find alternative strategies. Catalyst’s analysis found that high school suspensions fell from 117 to 94 per 1,000 students between 1996—the year before the district adopted a zero tolerance policy toward certain infractions—and 2003. In comparison, the elementary suspension rate rose to 64 per 1,000 from 34 per 1,000.

Damaging to education

How schools handle discipline is critical to the learning environment. “If your school climate is bad, kids can’t focus on achievement,” says Bill Woodward, director of training and technical assistance for the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “When boundaries are in place, they respond better in class. They’re not worried about what’s going to happen when they leave the classroom. When boundaries are not enforced clearly, you get aberrant behavior, especially from kids with higher risk factors.”

Some educators argue suspensions do more harm than good.

“With traditional school discipline, it’s one, two, three, you’re out. Well, what do you do with all the kids who are out? We’ve got to be more creative and proactive, and teach them the skills to be members of the community,” says Shari Demitrowicz, principal of Lawrence Hall Youth Services’ therapeutic day school, which serves youth whose behavior has proven too much for public schools to handle.

Conversely, the pressure schools face to raise achievement is bringing to light long-standing problems with inadequate teacher training in discipline, notes Barbara Radner, director of DePaul University’s Center for Urban Education.

Radner says many teachers are now facing extraordinary classroom stress, such as overage students who have been retained multiple times.

“The lack of teacher competence to do the kind of things we expect them to do is just getting more visible,” she says.

Even one non-educator, who works on behalf of students facing expulsion, agrees that schools “are stuck between a rock and a hard place. They have to raise test scores as well as deal with kids with behavior problems,” says Lauren Adams, a staff attorney and law professor at Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center.

One West Side principal whose school has a high mobility rate attributes it to an influx of students who have had discipline problems at previous schools. These students, she says, are trying to avoid expulsion and “come with two folders of discipline [incidents], and they’ve been to eight schools.” The principal asked to remain anonymous out of concern that speaking candidly and publicly about discipline problems could spark retaliation. Other principals Catalyst spoke with were also reluctant to talk on the record, saying discipline is a touchy issue, especially among district officials concerned about CPS’ image.

Overage retained students are a part of the problem the system doesn’t want to face, the principal says, agreeing with Radner. “When you have students who are in the wrong chronological placement, they feel intimidated academically. [Misbehaving] becomes a way of getting some sense of power,” the principal says.

Recently, the school briefly enrolled a 15-year-old 6th-grader who had been retained in 4th-grade for four years. “I appealed to the board and I got him out,” she says. “He doesn’t go to school at all. He sells drugs.”

Reporting of data unreliable

While states like California and other urban districts such as Houston and Boston publish annual school profiles that include suspension rates, the Illinois School Report Cards do not include such data. CPS officials acknowledge that the statistics reported to central office are notoriously incomplete.

Andres Durbak, school safety and security director for CPS, believes that “the lower the severity of the misconduct, the less incentive there is to report.”

He expects the district’s new Student Information System, set to debut next spring, will provide better tracking of discipline records.

The West Side principal echoes Durbak, saying schools underreport in part to avoid being labeled a “persistently violent” school under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Currently, however, no schools fit the criteria, says an ISBE spokeswoman.

Even without NCLB, however, fear of looking bad is pervasive and longstanding, the West Side principal adds, recalling that she once taught at a school “where if you wanted to report something you couldn’t, because you felt threatened by the principal.” Some of her current teachers, she reports, say their former principals told them not to report misconduct that might warrant suspension.

The Chicago Teachers Union has begun a campaign to encourage teachers to report discipline problems. “We need our members to be very aggressive. What happens to them must be reported to the principal,” says Rick Perrotte, CTU’s school discipline coordinator.

Taking preventive action

Elementary principals say fighting is the most common reason for suspensions, followed by profanity or disrespect toward school staff and violations of the zero tolerance policy on weapons, drugs or alcohol. (The data from ISBE do not show suspensions by type of offense.)

While some principals say they lack options besides suspension, other schools say they try to stop trouble before it starts. “People need to have preventive measures, be familiar with their students and the community, and have discipline procedures in addition to the Uniform Discipline Code,” says Principal Dyrice Garner of Beethoven Elementary in Fuller Park.

Among Beethoven’s tools is a model created by the Girls and Boys Town home for troubled children in Nebraska. When a fight occurs, students have to describe the problem, how they reacted and what they’ll do in the future to avoid fighting. Garner also notes that Beethoven has plenty of male staff, who serve as role models for boys. And until demolition of the Chicago Housing Authority’s Robert Taylor high-rises began, the school had a stable population of families and had forged good relationships with parents, who backed up the school’s handling of discipline.

It’s no secret that principals, like Garner, can make or break discipline. “When we have aggressive, collegial leaders who send a positive, clear message, a lot of the discipline problems disappear,” the CTU’s Perrotte observes.

However, being proactive can look like a bad investment to cash-strapped schools. In North Lawndale, six elementary schools had success with a research-based program that promotes student responsibility, but are finding it too expensive and time-consuming to keep the program on track. (See story.)

Poor instruction, broken homes

Principals faced with pressure to boost test scores may turn to suspension to rid classrooms of difficult students who keep classmates from learning.

“We’re trying to protect that precious instructional time and minimize disruption,” says Principal Maurice Harvey of Jordan Elementary in Rogers Park.

But ironically, the quick-fix teaching strategies some schools fall back on to raise scores quickly can drive up discipline problems, says John Price, an assistant principal at Chavez Elementary in Back of the Yards. “If you’re using poor instruction, kill-and-drill, kids are going to misbehave because they’re bored,” he says. “Your best behavior days are your best curricular days.”

And ultimately, lost instructional time with suspended students will come back to haunt schools when standardized tests are given, warns Chavez Principal Sandy Traback. “If they’re out of school and you can’t teach them, [their scores] still count.”

Ultimately, many of those Catalyst spoke with say, the roots of discipline problems stretch beyond schools. “A lot of students are coming from broken homes,” observes Robert Marshall, dean of students at Marquette Elementary in Chicago Lawn. “Even for the least little thing, they want to fight it out or punch each other.”

While it’s well-known that children face gang recruitment, it’s less often acknowledged that some children are literally born into gangs. “Many students in CPS have parents, uncles, cousins who belong to gangs. The whole family lives the gang life,” says Durbak. “That’s an element that’s very difficult for us to deal with. You’re counting on the home to be the source of stability and direction, and it’s not.”

The West Side principal who requested anonymity describes a 12-year-old boy at her school who “can get 50 kids together in five minutes. He’s done it,” she says, referring to a fight that took place outside of school. The boy insulted a girl, whose brother started a fight to defend her. Within minutes, 50 children attacked the brother on the 12-year-old’s orders, the principal recalls, adding that the boy’s father is in a gang and the child’s authority stems from that affiliation.

Training, resources needed

Suspensions are ineffective in such cases, this principal agrees. “When you say you are going to suspend someone who is out selling drugs on a bike all day, do you really think you are hurting them?” Even so, schools have no other option when children are violent. “If I’ve got a kid who hit another kid in the head with a brick, why are you going to tell me to reduce suspensions? You don’t reduce suspensions. You give us resources, like SMART [CPS’ alternative to expulsion] or alternative school.”

Both school personnel and experts bemoan many parents’ poor disciplinary skills. “We need parenting programs at the primary and preschool grades, to give parents a heads-up that it is important to be consistent with discipline and to reward good behavior,” says Robert Deckinga, principal of Von Humboldt Elementary in West Town.

“We have to be more forceful with parents to make sure they instill in their child just a simple discipline code,” says Sellars, the McNair parent and LSC member.

And principals say they need resources, especially counselors and social workers, to reduce discipline problems. At Jordan Elementary, Harvey says a social worker checks in weekly with troubled children and their teachers after a suspension to make sure students are adjusting.

“That seems to work, as long as the child knows we are monitoring his behavior, and if he gets angry, he has someone to go and talk with,” Harvey says.

Others agree. The West Side principal describes a girl at her school who regularly beat up other students after witnessing her father being beaten to death. “She is going to keep pounding people unless she has time to tell her story.”

Troublesome children “need someone to talk to,” says McNair’s dean of students, Maudestine McLeary. “Many of them just want to come down to my office and have me listen to them.”

Interns Alejandra Cerna Rios, Heather Gillers and Sunny Xiang contributed to this story.

To contact Maureen Kelleher, call (312) 673-3882 or send an e-mail to kelleher@catalyst-chicago.org.

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