Increase in suspensions a concern for Champaign schools; neighboring districts can relate
It's something a school administrator would rather keep out of the spotlight.
— 1,549 school suspensions given in the last academic year, the highest number in the last five years.
— 853 suspensions given to K-5 students — a jump of 368 from the previous year.
— And 4,133 discipline referrals for that same age group — more than twice the number of the year before.
"For me personally — and I got a suspension report every week but didn't collectively keep track of them — it was shocking to see the numbers," Jamar Brown said of the Champaign schools' discipline data for the 2013-14 year, presented to him and other school board members recently.
"Currently, where the suspensions are at is not acceptable to me," added board member Kerris Lee, who was disturbed that "the numbers were so high, especially in our elementaries."
Though disciplinary measures are necessary in some situations, Lee said he favors finding "more creative ways to better support those children in a structured and nurturing atmosphere.
"I think we as a district and community are coming together to put some of those ideas in motion," he continued. "And we as a board always need to be looking at whether we're allocating our resources properly to support all of our children and their families, our teachers and administrators and our schools."
What did Champaign students do to get suspended?
The top offenses were physical confrontations with other students (753, or 60 percent of all suspensions), disruptive behavior (156), physical confrontations with staff members (101), verbal abuse to staff members (87), disobedience (85) and threats to staff members (48).
Or to put it another way, school staff were victims or potential victims of 236 incidents that resulted in suspensions.
Other offenses were drug-related (51); involved sexual harassment or hazing (45); weapons (36) and theft (31).
If you talk to administrators, as The News-Gazette did last week, they'll tell you that most of the 813 students on the receiving end responded well to interventions including the ACTIONS program, which will be expanding in its second year.
But 167 students — who racked up three or more, which accounted for 46 percent of the total suspensions and led to the spike — did not. That's up from 89 who received three or more the previous year.
"We have a small group of students and families that need more support," said Susan Zola, assistant superintendent for achievement, curriculum and instruction.
Those children come from low-income, single-family households and depressed neighborhoods hit by violence such as the recent fatal shootings of 26-year-old Allen Redding and 22-year-old Rakim J. Vineyard, both former Champaign schools students who were killed within four weeks of each other.
Many experience hunger and health issues. Some have faced abuse or are homeless.
They bring that emotional and psychological trauma with them to school, Zola said.
"All of our students ... want to find success both academically and emotionally, and their families send them to school with those same hopes and dreams," she said. "But the reality is for a small percentage ... the experiences they have outside of school, whether it's related to violence or issues of poverty, can really impact their success in both the academic and social arenas. It's going to take more than just the school. It will take community partners to help."
Champaign isn't alone. Though Danville, Urbana and Rantoul City schools had fewer suspensions last year, officials in those districts saw some increases and/or continued to see high numbers.
Urbana handed down 449 suspensions in 2013-14 — down 67 from the previous year.
Although elementary suspensions saw a slight decrease, Prairie went from 9 to 19, and Wiley went from 15 to 27.
"Prairie had a significant increase in their enrollment (last year), which accounts for the increase," said Deputy Superintendent Jennifer Ivory-Tatum. "Wiley had a grade level that was quite large in class size, which even with additional staffing, there were still some behavioral challenges there."
Rantoul City Schools — which is a K-8 district with 1,600 students but has high poverty and mobility rates like the larger ones — had 368 suspensions in 2013-14, compared to 402 the previous year.
While elementary suspensions went down slightly last year, Superintendent Michelle Ramage said one intermediate school's went up from 66 to 88.
"I definitely don't like the numbers I saw at Broadmeadow," Ramage said, referring to the school for grades 3-5.
She attributed the bump to an administrative change mid-year and not having a parent liaison in the building the entire year. Now called intervention aides, they teach students how to respond appropriately to situations and support them and their families in a variety of other ways both in and outside of the classroom.
"We feel this position ... is so vitally important that the board created two additional positions ... so they only have one school to cover instead of two," Ramage said.
Danville continued to have the highest overall number, despite having around 3,700 fewer students than Champaign. It handed out 2,217 suspensions, to roughly 15.6 percent of the student body.
Superintendent Mark Denman said Edison Elementary's suspensions went from 38 to 75 and South View Middle School's also increased.
"We've been working on it, and we continue to work on it," said Denman. "As far as we're concerned, one suspension is too many."
Champaign's significant jump at the elementary level sets it apart from the other three districts.
— The highest jump in suspensions took place at Garden Hills, which went from 35 two years ago to 237 last year.
— Suspensions more than doubled at Barkstall (27 to 67), Stratton (45 to 104) and Westview (10 to 27).
— And they nearly doubled at Washington School (42 to 82).
Orlando Thomas, director of achievement and student services, cited several reasons behind the districtwide increase including administrative changes at buildings — among them Garden Hills, Stratton and Bottenfield — and changes in the legal definitions for weapons.
"Now, it could be a pencil, scissors, a water bottle," Thomas said. "The legal definition is any object or item that's being used contrary to its intended purpose."
He also pointed to increased mental health issues among students, more poverty-level students coming to the district and the absence of males in single-family homes.
On top of that, the district lost two full-time staff members provided through the Illinois-Midwest Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports Network due to funding cuts and changes within the network, Thomas said. Those employees provided on-site support to staff as they administered the program, designed to improve school climate and help students make good decisions.
Thomas noted an uptick in discipline referrals and suspensions among some of the district's youngest — kindergartners and first-graders — about two months into the last school year. Behind more of them: extremely disruptive and/or violent behavior, he said.
Early childhood teachers saw the same behavior from some 3- to 5-year-olds, teacher Stephanie Hayek reported. She said when students had violent outbursts but couldn't be removed from the classroom quickly or safely, sometimes staff was forced to evacuate other students.
(Pre-kindergarten students aren't suspended.)
The more frequent incidents of that type of behavior among 5- and 6-year-olds has been a trend in Rantoul City Schools, too.
"Some of our highest referral counts are from kindergartners," Ramage said. "Those numbers are alarming to us. That's where you're trying to give them a good start for the rest of their school career. It can't be, 'Hello. Go to the office.' "
"We're starting to see these students with concerns at a younger age than we've seen before," Zola said.
In many cases, she said, it's the youngsters' first time in a structured setting around other children and adults. So when faced with something new and confusing to them or conflict of some sort, they will react the only way they know how — which might be to have a meltdown or become aggressive.
"Some students simply don't have the skill set to make different choices other than to respond in a physical nature," Thomas added. "It takes time to reteach how you should respond in a school setting. But in the midst of that, you have a classroom teacher trying to teach 24 other students."
Other trends, which aren't new, in Champaign:
Boys were more than twice as likely to be suspended as girls — last year by a 1,091 to 458 margin.
And more black students were suspended than members of all other racial groups combined.
The district reported 1,163 were given to African Americans, 204 to white, 94 to multi-racial students, 73 to Hispanics, 12 to Asian Americans and two to Native Americans.
Brown said the racial disparity "is definitely a problem."
Brown said it's important to train all staff to be more responsive to cultural differences.
"It just gives them a better understanding of people who are not like them," he said. "What might be seen as disrespectful or out-of-line in one culture, may not be in another one. It's one of those who-creates-the-norm?"
Zola and Thomas said they believe the school district has been and continues to be proactive through a broad spectrum of interventions including the Novak Academy and READY alternative education programs, the mentoring of students, the school resource officer program and the ACTIONS (Alternative Center for Targeted Instruction and Ongoing Support) Program, launched last year.
The three-year pilot program gives suspended students academic support, works with them to identify what may have caused the behavior that led to their suspension and teaches them skills to make better choices. It also connects them with community resources they might need.
"When they go back, they have a game plan ... that highlights the strategies they have learned how to implement," Thomas said, adding the primary goal is to reduce recidivism.
Thomas said the program got off to a strong start. Last year, 55 percent of the nearly 762 K-12 students who went through the program didn't receive an additional suspension.
This year, the program, which has an administrator and two teachers, is adding another teacher and an aide.
Zola said the district also has formed a number of partnerships with social-service agencies, law enforcement, local government, food pantries, churches and organizations to provide "wrap-around" services to students and their families, based on their needs.
For example, Zola said, 230 3- to 5-year-old students are on a waiting list to receive early childhood services, which are full. The district is working with the Altrusa Club and the Champaign Public Library to provide them with reading and math materials and activities, which they can do at home "to build their early-readiness success."
Also, Community Elements currently offers some mental health services to youth, but they're not available to children under 10.
"We're going to try to replicate that with our staff delivering those services to students, regardless of their age, because we know it's a successful program," she said.
The district also continues to be involved in the Champaign Youth Assessment Center, which evaluates troubled kids, ages 10 to 17, and links them and their families to services they might need, in an effort to keep them out of the court system.
Suspensions, area schools