5 area districts listed for racial disparities in discipline practices

5 area districts listed for racial disparities in discipline practices

Racial disparity in the discipline practices of five area school districts could soon lead to action by the Illinois State Board of Education.

Champaign, Danville, Georgetown, Hoopeston Area and Westville are on a preliminary list of 84 districts statewide that ISBE has flagged for patterns of disparity in suspensions or expulsions over the past three academic years.

ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said the agency will begin working with those districts in October to create "improvement plans." But what those will look like hasn't been fully fleshed out.

"The date we do know is that they have to create the improvement plan within 90 days," Matthews said. "ISBE will be providing some models and peer-to-peer learning opportunities so districts can learn from each other."

The list isn't final: The 84 districts on it were selected because of racial disproportionality in punishments that include suspensions and expulsions, based on district-reported data from the 2014-15, 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.

Using data from 2014-17, ISBE determined which districts fell in the top 20 percent for disciplining students of color more often than should be likely.

According to ISBE:

— Although not among the highest offenders in the state for either suspensions or expulsions for any of the three years, Champaign's Unit 4 was flagged for racial disproportionality — in either form of punishment — for all three years.

— Danville was in the top 20 percent of both suspension and expulsion rates.

— Hoopeston, Georgetown-Ridge-Farm and Westville made the preliminary list cut for being in the top 20 percent of suspensions.

'More work is needed'

Complicating matters: Matthews said ISBE plans to scrap the earliest years of data and add 2017-2018 school data before reaching out to districts again in October. That, she said, could change which districts make the list.

Westville Superintendent Seth Miller, curious about his school's placement on the list, called ISBE to ask what it meant.

"I think because districts have known this is coming, they've been asking where they stand," Miller said. "So I think ISBE said, 'Well, we don't have 2017-18 data yet, so we'll give you the preliminary data.'"

Miller said he isn't sure if Westville will end up on the list again in October, but added that whether it is or not isn't his top priority.

"I'm not as concerned about the list as I am about the confidence of our community in our schools and our ability to treat kids fairly and justly and equitably," he said.

The data, released by ISBE in response to an open records request by the Chicago Reporter, shouldn't be a surprise: Since 2014, when state lawmakers passed SB 2793, districts have been required to provide ISBE with reports about disciplinary measures — broken down by race, gender and duration, among other categories.

Some districts, even among those flagged, have already taken steps to address issues of disparity. In an email statement to The News-Gazette, Unit 4 Director of Achievement and Student Services Orlando Thomas said the district has already taken successful steps — without ISBE intervention.

"For the last two years, Champaign Unit 4 School District has been focused on improving discipline practices and creating an equitable system that supports all students," Thomas wrote. "As a result of our efforts, we saw improvement reflected in the 2017 data, including a decrease in number of suspensions (48 percent). However, more work is needed to improve racial disproportionality."

'What does this mean?'

Thomas went on to detail various district-wide efforts, including the implementation of restorative practices and teaching staffers about trauma-informed care. The latter refers to the practice of identifying and responding appropriately to issues that may have been caused by underlying trauma issues.

Similarly, restorative practices mark a shift from "punitive responses" to behavioral issues to ones meant to "repair harm" and understand underlying issues, Thomas explained.

In Urbana, district officials say they've been implementing a shift toward restorative practices since 2015. Earlier this year, that led to changes in personnel — out in 2018-19 are deans in the secondary schools; in are more student support staff.

"An exclusionary consequence, an out-of-school suspension, is more harmful to a black student than a white student in terms for further educational outcomes," Superintendent Don Owen said. "That means that there's some systemic and implicit racial biases in our society that we, as educators, if we really want public education to be an equalizer, that we have to take a more active role in dismantling."

That shift could explain why Urbana went from being among the top 20 percent in racially disproportionate districts in 2014-15 and 2015-16 to off the list by 2016-17.

Officials in districts that have reduced the number of expulsions and suspensions also point to the 2015 passage of SB 100, which required them to "exhaust" discipline alternatives before resorting to drastic measures. Among the changes: Districts using zero-tolerance discipline policies were forced to scale back.

"Our rate of suspension from the first year of data to third year fell by 50 percent," Westville's Miller said. "I think practically, the big question now is: What does this mean? How should a district respond to it?

"Our young people understand there are consequences here — whether you're a star athlete, or male or female, or you're white or a person of color, we have high expectations because we know just how capable all of them are."