Jesus Velazquez got involved with a group fighting against suspension and expulsion after he went through an expulsion hearing for having a marijuana pipe. Instead of being expelled, he was sent to an intervention program. [Photo by Michelle Kanaar] Credit: Photo by Michelle Kanaar

In June, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett heralded changes to the Student Code of Conduct that she said will reduce disparities in how school discipline is carried out and ultimately cut the number of suspensions and expulsions. 

But Catalyst Chicago has discovered that officials slipped a loophole into the new code that will allow principals to request a transfer for a student who has been referred for expulsion—even without a hearing. Students would be transferred to a school for expelled or suspended students; effectively, the only difference between this maneuver, called a “disciplinary reassignment,” and an actual expulsion is that students won’t be identified as expelled.

Meanwhile, the Board of Education approved in May a second alternative school for expelled students, which, at the time seemed to contradict the publicly stated goal of lowering expulsions. CPS plans to spend $3.5 million on the two schools, up from the $1.37 million it spent last year. The board has already approved a contract with Camelot Alternative Education, a private entity based in Austin, Texas, to run the schools. 

A CPS official calls the option for disciplinary reassignment one of the new “alternatives to expulsion” outlined in the revised policy, and stresses that disciplinary reassignments can only be used for Group 5 and 6 violations, the most serious offenses. They also note that suburban schools often have this option.

Officials say that the Law Department “advises” network officers to hold a meeting with parents and principals to talk about reassignments beforehand. “The goal of this meeting is to provide due process and notice that the student is being considered for removal to another school,” according to the district. But the code does not require such a meeting or offer any recourse for students or parents who don’t want the transfer.

Disciplinary reassignments are the opposite of what advocates for youth want to see happen with young people, says Mariame Kaba, founding director of the group Project NIA, which has tracked school arrests and discipline in CPS. 

Kaba was taken aback when she heard about the loophole. She was part of a group that worked with CPS this year to change the Student Code of Conduct to emphasize restorative justice strategies, rather than punishment for misbehavior.

“This is really surprising to me,” Kaba says. “It is really bad. There is always some fine print.”

CPS policy states that expulsions are only to be issued “after a hearing officer determines that a student engaged in behavior(s) that are the most seriously disruptive or illegal in nature and no other alternatives are appropriate.” 

The official numbers show that fewer young people are being expelled—only 166 teens in 2012-2013, about half the number of students who were expelled from district-run schools three years ago. Yet despite the decline, thousands of students are still threatened with expulsion and sent to hearings each year, even for seemingly minor offenses. 

Expulsions from district-run schools are only part of the story. Charter schools expelled 307 students in the 2012-2013 school year—63 percent of all those expelled—even though charters only enroll 12 percent of all students. (The 2012-2013 data is the latest available.) No data are available to show how many charter students are referred for expulsion or go through the hearing process.

 Before an expulsion can take place, the long process from referral to hearing can leave young people with the feeling that they are being forced out of school. More than 2,800 students were referred for expulsion in the 2012-2013 school year, but only half of them went through a hearing, according to CPS data. Ultimately, fewer than 12 percent of students who go through hearings are expelled. 

CPS officials say that some of the expulsion referrals were rejected, either because of laws that strictly regulate the expulsion of a special education student or because there were too few witnesses to testify against a student. Also, principals can withdraw an expulsion referral at any time. At least one principal said he has withdrawn referrals because the student left the school on his or her own. 

In fact, only about 500 of the 1,400 expulsion hearings in 2013 involved offenses for which principals must refer a student for expulsion—Level 6 offenses, such as arson, a bomb threat or selling drugs. The rest involved less serious offenses. 

About 600 of the hearings resulted in students being sent to the district’s intervention program, called SMART, for Saturday Morning Alternative Reach Out and Teach. But fewer than half complete the program, which is held downtown on Saturdays and has a parent and community service component.

Joel Rodriguez, an organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project, says that going through an expulsion hearing can have a devastating effect on a young person. Students must be sworn in, so the atmosphere can feel intimidating, like a courtroom. Rodriguez, who has attended hearings with students, says that school officials often bring up trivial matters that paint the young person in a bad light. 

“It is scarring,” he says. “The reality is that most behaviors could be addressed in a lot of different ways, instead of warranting an expulsion hearing.” 

Most students show up at hearings with only their parents, says Jessica Schneider, who provides pro bono representation for students in expulsion hearings as a staff attorney for the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Schneider says many parents and students don’t understand the expulsion process and don’t think to get an attorney, though she believes having one helps.

Schneider says her impression is that school administrators often want the student expelled, while attorneys or advocates press for the SMART program or a “do not expel” ruling. “School administrators who see the student every day are trying to push the kids out,” she says. 

Jesus Velazquez is not convinced that much will ever change in CPS to reform the expulsion process. His own experience with a long suspension and an expulsion hearing completely changed his views of school—so much so that he has become an activist against harsh discipline with the grassroots groups Voices of Youth in Chicago Education and Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

Jesus readily admits his offense: He had a marijuana pipe in his backpack, something that he shouldn’t have been carrying. But he still cannot believe how that one mistake tripped him up so badly.

Jesus was immediately issued a 10-day suspension by the principal of Kelyvn Park High. After being absent for two weeks, he struggled to pass his classes. He ended up failing most of his classes during sophomore year, putting him behind and now facing a fifth year in high school in order to graduate. 

CPS officials say that expulsion hearings are usually held from four to six weeks after the incident. But Jesus says it wasn’t until nine months later that he received a letter telling him to show up for a hearing.

“I didn’t even know I was referred for expulsion,” Jesus says. “I was surprised.” At the time, he didn’t know anything about the expulsion process and thought that if he lost out at the hearing, he would just be completely shut out of going to school forever. “I didn’t know about alternative schools,” he says.

Besides some occasional pot-smoking, Jesus says he was a good student with ambition, and was frightened at the prospect of losing his chance at an education. 

His dad, who was furious about the situation, had to take time off work for the hearing. The two of them went downtown to central office headquarters. Jesus was sworn in and a recorder was turned on. He had to explain what happened and then he was given two options: Go to the SMART intervention program or be expelled and forced to finish high school at an alternative school.

Jesus chose to go to SMART. But it took three months for him to get a spot in the program—nearly a year since the pipe was found in his backpack. SMART runs in eight-week intervals, so if a student misses the enrollment window, he or she must wait until another session begins.

SMART was good, Jesus says, and the staff talked about how to make better decisions. Jesus says he even stopped smoking weed and took up running.  

Yet Jesus is still upset and says there’s no reason for the long protracted process. “It was just dumb.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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