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Source: CPS District data as reported by the Illinois State Board of Education. Researchers caution that sharp changes in numbers may also be a result in changes in the way data is reported.

CPS discipline rule changes have brought down suspensions – but not enough, critics say

by Bravetta Hassell
Feb 17, 2011


Bravetta Hassell/MEDILL

At a High HOPES public forum meeting on Jan. 29, the Rev. Robert Biekman calls on the incoming mayor and on Chicago Public Schools to address the high number of suspensions -- especially of African-American males. "While suspensions may be effective for some children, if you look at the large numbers, it s not necessarily good for all children," Biekman said that the rally, which drew about 100 participants.


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How a peer jury works

“The peer jury is about creating a space where young people can be respected and be heard and be engaged in this problem solving process,” said Andrew Tonachel, youth development director of Alternatives Inc.

The peer jury process is student-centered and completely voluntary – from the students applying to be jurors to the students who are having their cases heard. Peer Juries are sanctioned only for Group 1 through Group 4 inappropriate behaviors as found in the Chicago Public Schools Student Code of Conduct. Groups 5 and 6 actions automatically require administrative recourse that is not limited to suspension.

Here is how a peer jury hearing basically works:

(1) During the proceedings, which are confidential, parties give an opening statement before a team of jurors where both the person accused of the wrongdoing and the victim give their sides of the story and discuss a solution.
(2) An agreement is reached between the parties. Tonachel said the solution should be one that is specific and measurable.
(3) The peer jury designates a student to follow up with the involved students to make sure the agreement was carried out successfully.

“If at any stage the process breaks down – even after the agreement is made – the students go back to the dean,” Tonachel said.

For parents unfamiliar with peer jury, all proceedings – at least for the Alternatives’ trained programs – are supervised. Should students speak of hurting themselves or others during the hearing, the adviser is required to breach the confidentiality of the jury to alert the appropriate authorities.

The juries have been fairly successful Tonachel said. Between 2008 and 2010, hundreds of days of suspensions were avoided because of this restorative justice programming. 

Nearly 45,000 of Chicago Public School’s more than 410,000 students were suspended at least once last year, according to district data.

Though that number is down from the 2007-2008 school year, it is still high, activists said at a South Side community meeting at the end of January. More than that, one Chicago pastor said, it is an issue the next Chicago mayor will have to reckon with.

Suspensions can be a pipeline – leading from dropped-out straight to prison, said the Rev. Robert Biekman, of Southlawn United Methodist Church in Chicago’s Avalon Park neighborhood.

“There are some children that probably need to be suspended,” said Biekman, de facto spokesman for High HOPES – Healing Over the Punishment of Expulsions and Suspensions. “It is a tool, but not the only tool.”

The campaign is part of a larger network of advocacy groups within the Community Renewal Society, a faith-based social justice organization with headquarters in the Loop.

At the meeting, the group called on Chicago mayoral candidates to support its campaign to reduce suspensions and expulsions 40 percent by trying alternatives.

Here is what the mayoral candidates who addressed student discipline said they would do:

Gery Chico: “Will evaluate and assess student behavior to identify problems early before they endanger teachers and other students.”

Rahm Emanuel: “Will replace the assistant principal role with a director of family and community engagement. This person would manage all extended time programming and would be charged with parent organizing, training and enlisting assets of parents in the school.”

Carol Moseley Braun: “Will follow the model created by the Baltimore Public Schools for reducing dropouts and absenteeism by creating a graduated system of consequences and interventions from student misconduct and only suspending students for dangerous behavior.”

Studies have shown that students who are suspended even once are more likely to drop out of school.

With no high school diploma, college isn’t an option and job prospects are bleak. CPS has historically had a high dropout rate.

Addressing problems at the root

Carlos Azcoitia, a professor of educational leadership at the National-Louis University’s Loop campus, said bringing continuity to students could change much of these statistics.

Azcoitia, who spent much of his career working for CPS – with 10 years as principal of John Spry Community Academy in South Lawndale – said getting involved in the student’s and family’s life improves school climate and also helps prevent suspensions.

“Typically disruptions occur gradually, and that’s the part that we have to address,” said Azcoitia, referring to relatively minor infractions in the CPS Student Code of Conduct. “Otherwise, they will escalate and then become unpredictable.”

And predictability of behavior is something that develops through effective discipline, Azcoitia said. When a stress is exerted upon a person, he or she is likely to react in a way learned through experience.

Through greater student engagement, triggers of misbehavior can be noted and teachers can work with the students to more constructively respond to those triggers, he said.

“In some communities, there are more challenges than others,” Azcoitia said. “You have to be inclusive of student behaviors, supports and interventions.”

Part of that work is dealing with students who have violated the conduct code without breaking the law. For these students, measures that are less punitive and more rehabilitative work best, he said.

Some CPS schools have adopted different ways of addressing discipline, including peer mediation, peer juries and peer circles.

As part of these programs, he said, “You teach people about relationships.”

The focus is on repairing the harm and not on the punishment, said Andrew Tonachel, the youth development director at Alternatives, a youth and family service agency. The philosophy of restorative justice is one that is taking root in school discipline models across the country as education leaders grapple with increasing suspension numbers and a disproportionate number of those actions doled out to African-American males.

This fall, the Southern Poverty Law Center found that in many of the country’s middle schools, African-American males were three times more likely to be suspended from school than their white male peers.

The numbers reflect a theme long found in CPS’ discipline data, in part the impetus for parent group POWER-PAC to get involved and work with the school district to make some changes and what precipitated a cadre of articles on black male achievement by Catalyst-Chicago two summers ago.

According to CPS school discipline data reported by the Illinois State Board of Education, African-American males were more than three times as likely to be suspended than were white males.

CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan said that while the district cannot predict with certainty what long-term impact the increased emphasis on restorative justice versus suspensions will have, preliminary data show a one-third decline in high school suspensions when comparing year-over-year data from the first semester of the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years.

Feeling out options to ‘out-of-school’

Alternatives started its peer jury program at Nicholas Senn High School in Edgewater after administrators had expressed frustration about the load of student referrals they were receiving, Tonachel said. Often the referrals were for repeat offenders, guilty of petty issues that could have been solved in a way other than by going to the principal’s office.

In 1997, the program was launched at the high school with the work of the assistant principal, some students and community volunteers.

Central to the peer jury hearing, which is a completely voluntary system, are the peers and the students involved in the act that brought them there.

Both the victim and victimizer are brought into a circle together where they talk about what happened and what should be done to solve or bring closure to the problem. The students sign a written agreement on the solution. Later, another student, designated by the peer jury, will follow up with the students to determine whether the terms of the agreement are being met.

“If at any stage the process breaks down, the students go back to the dean,” Tonachel said.

In 2001, CPS contracted with Alternatives to share its peer jury training with more schools. This fall, Alternatives celebrated its 10th year of training. Now, Tonachel said, 20 to 45 schools are trained in any given year.

Still, Alternatives’ peer jury program is only one of many approaches to discipline that schools use, Tonachel said.

By writing restorative justice measures into its student code of conduct since 2007, CPS schools are now encouraged to try alternatives in dealing with student infractions. Shuftan said the measures include circles of understanding, peer juries, community service and victim-offender mediation.

According to the student code, there are six groups of inappropriate behaviors. Groups 5 and 6 behaviors include criminal acts such as assault, burglary and murder, and are punishable by automatic suspension and referral for expulsion.

When these types of offenses are committed, the code says that restorative justice measures are out of the question.

But are many schools even using the philosophy in the first place? Whatever is being used, is it working?

“We have been encouraging school administrations to consider various restorative justice measures instead of either in- and out-of-school suspensions, and the data suggests this message is being heard,” Shuftan said in an e-mail.

With or without the numbers, looking forward

Last month the Community Media Workshop reported that the Chicago Area Project’s restorative justice program at Dyett High School in Washington Park was successful, paring down in-school arrests from 60 to 6 in one year. However, the program halted when a new principal arrived.

Donoven Jones, 19, said that he didn’t think his school, Lincoln Park High School, uses any restorative justice practices. If students got into or started trouble they were simply sent to the dean, he said.

“[Suspension] just gets rid of a person for a couple of days,” Jones said.

Jones’ view is one reason mayoral candidate William “Doc” Walls would like to further encourage alternatives to out-of-school suspensions in Chicago Public Schools.

“Restorative justice measures give students an opportunity to pay back for the wrongs they have done rather than excluding them from school.”

Walls said that schools should be required to take the same subjective step-by-step procedures when dealing with student behavior. “If you leave it to be subjective, you’re likely to have a different result,” he said.

In one particular case at Orr Academy High School in Humboldt Park, sophomore Tondalayer Brown said she remembered a student who had come to peer jury after starting a food fight. The student had agreed that his punishment would be cleaning the cafeteria. Brown said she thought more of her friends could have benefited from a peer jury case instead of suspension.

For Azcoitia, now teaching others to take on leadership roles in schools, achieving a system of addressing student problems all goes back to knowing the young people being taught, knowing their families, knowing the community the school serves.

“Education happens inside the school and outside the school,” Azcoitia said. “Schools cannot remain isolated from the communities they are serving. It’s not as simple as that.”