CHAMPAIGN – The numbers tell the tale.
This year so far, 29 Champaign students have been expelled from their home schools. That's almost two students a week since school started late in August. Last year, expulsions numbered 31 for the entire year.
And through November, 156 students have been suspended, compared with 109 suspensions for all of last year, according to Assistant Superintendent Ecomet Burley, who headed a Thursday night community discussion about school.
"Our goal is to help students make good choices," Burley said. "There's a marked improvement in behavior at the elementary level, but we're having more problems in middle and high schools. There were 17 suspensions alone after one major incident."
"It takes the whole community to deal with the problem," said Superintendent Arthur Culver of the reason for calling the meeting attended by about 100 teachers, community residents, parents and representatives of community and government organizations like the Champaign Police Department.
"It's happening all over, not just here," Culver said. "It's just a different time. ... We have the right people here to come up with some ideas."
"All parents want a safe environment in schools," said Urbana Deputy Superintendent Preston Williams, who talked to the group about how his district uses school resource officers, something under consideration by the Champaign district.
"This is our 12th year using resource officers, and they stop a lot of things from happening," Williams said. "They're at the schools for enforcement but also for counseling and educating."
In Urbana, there have been 166 suspensions so far this year, about 20 percent of the 807 in the district last school year. The district has expelled one student this year, compared with eight for all of last year, according to Williams.
Burley asked participants to join groups at tables to talk about ways the community and the schools can work together and separately to improve student behavior. Members of one group, led by Imani Bazzell, came up with a list of 20 different actions.
"Engage in extracurricular activities that have high student interest," proposed Beth Shepperd, assistant superintendent. "Why not have a hip-hop dance team?"
Terence Fitzgerald proposed more cultural awareness training for school staff members, and Brian Minsker said he'd like to see students wear identification so everyone knows who's supposed to be at a school and who isn't.
Teams compared notes at the end of the listing process.
"Our team was about engagement," said Sam Smith, a parent. "We'd like to make sure every child in a building is known well by someone in that building."
"Market the schools as part of the community," said Zanita Willis, a Stratton teacher, of a recommendation from her team.
Members of several teams supported the idea of hiring school resource officers in middle and high schools, but others opposed the idea of putting police wearing guns in the halls of schools.
"All this is about relationships," said Harold Davis, a local minister who challenged other participants to become mentors to support students who need help.
Culver said the meeting is the first step in a plan to bring schools and community members together regularly to talk about common ways to tackle the issue.
"There's going to be a lot of follow-through," he said. "We're going to start holding monthly meetings, starting in January, related to discipline, climate and safety. And I'm going to start meeting monthly with secondary students, not necessarily the 'good' kids. I want to meet with kids with difficulties.
"We can't give up on them," Culver said. "We have to look at what they can become, not what they are."