Activists hail new law on school discipline; districts say few changes needed
CHAMPAIGN — A new state law designed to keep kids in school and reduce racial disparity in student discipline numbers has two of Champaign-Urbana's most vocal activists saluting Gov. Bruce Rauner.
"You can be sure I'm happy about the governor signing this into law. What is happening right now with discipline in schools is not working," said Terry Townsend, who recently filed a federal complaint against Champaign's Unit 4 school district for the disproportionate number of black student expulsions and arrest referrals. "Any law or policy or regulation that encourages us to take a different look or approach to student discipline is very good."
Senate Bill 100, signed into law this week by Rauner, was championed by the group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education as "the most sweeping effort in the nation" to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline that many minority students — specifically black ones — fall into when they're taken out of school as punishment for bad behavior.
Targeting harsh school discipline practices, the law requires schools to reevaluate discipline rules and only suspend, expel or place a student in alternative education as a last resort.
Come September 2016, the deadline for implementation, districts across Illinois will no longer be allowed to follow "zero-tolerance" policies, which automatically suspend or expel a student for certain behavioral offenses.
Students can only be suspended or expelled when all other "appropriate or available disciplinary interventions have been exhausted," the bill reads. The only exception: when a student's actions impose an immediate threat to student safety, such as bringing drugs or weapons to school.
Urbana City Council member and equity advocate Aaron Ammons calls the law a "step in the right direction."
"I can't see why schools even have zero tolerance policies for young people who are growing and learning and making mistakes," he said. "There should, of course, be serious consequences or considerations for any serious infractions that are not appropriate for school, but I don't think zero tolerance works for youth in school."
New training for teachers
Other highlights of the law:
— Out-of-school suspensions cannot last longer than three days unless all other alternative forms of addressing bad behavior have been exhausted.
— Schools must have policies and programs in place to help students who have been suspended or expelled integrate back into school.
— Teachers must be educated on the following: consequences of student exclusion from school and how it can lead to early involvement in the judicial system; cultural and age-appropriate ways to respond and discipline students; and diverse classroom management techniques.
— Suspended students must have the opportunity to make up the work they missed while out of school.
— Schools must provide parents with more information about why their student was punished.
— School counselors can no longer suggest that a student drop out of high school.
— Charter schools can no longer fine students as a form of discipline.
Calls for more change
Local suspension statistics have led to lively discussions at school board meetings, criticism from parents and calls to rethink how school resource officers go about their jobs.
The most recent discipline data from the Illinois State Board of Education — for the 2013-14 school year — shows the racial disparity exists as much in Champaign-Urbana as Chicagoland, where SB 100 originated:
— Of the students suspended in Champaign schools that year, 1,163 were black and 204 white.
— Of Urbana's suspensions, 555 involved black students and 187 involved whites.
As welcome as the new legislation is, Ammons and Townsend argue that policy changes aren't enough. Ammons suggested a change in the culture of the curriculum and the educational environment of schools is the best place to start.
"Teachers and administrators must have an appreciation and understanding for the different circumstances and socioeconomic conditions African American students take with them to school," he said. "We need to talk about the relevancy of curriculum. History and English classes tend to be very white culture-dominated. We need to do more than just talk about Martin Luther King during Black History Month.
"If the curriculum isn't relevant to a student, why would they pay attention in class? That's part of why we start seeing behavior issues. The environment our children walk into has as much to do with them rebelling as the policies being written or rewritten do."
Unit 4: Rules already exist
Implementing the new law locally will involve minor changes, school officials say.
Unit 4 has no "zero tolerance" polices and the district has worked over the past several years to implement programs like ACTIONS, which supports students on suspension at the Family Information Center, district Attorney Tom Lockman said. Since it began in 2013, 86 percent of students who enrolled decreased the number of suspensions they received that year.
The school board also implemented changes to its school resource officer program, requiring daily reports from officers and monthly meetings with building administrators.
"We already have the programs in place this law requires," Lockman said. "The main changes will be simple policy revisions to things like the three-day suspension rules or, we currently have offenses within our student code of conduct that can be disciplined differently based on the circumstance or history of the student that would potentially call for more than a three-day suspension. So those things will have to be looked at, which our discipline advisory committee will review this fall."
Similarly in Rantoul, high school Principal Todd Wilson said he doesn't anticipate the district having to make many changes because "our programs already fall pretty closely in line with what the bill requires." Rantoul has no "zero tolerance" rules and it addresses all student discipline on a case-by-case basis, he said.