URBANA — Before the topic started trending during recent Urbana school board meetings, Tracee Palmer knew discipline in the district tended to work against students of color.
A mother of four African-American children in Urbana schools, she'd both seen and heard enough to conclude that certain students were frequently handed down harsher punishments in a disciplinary system that starts with a slip of paper, or referral, being sent to the dean's office and could end with a resolution as simple as a casual conversation or as severe as a suspension.
Palmer didn't have the statistics to prove it. But the district did.
It was that data — and the racial disparity it revealed — that Urbana school officials said prompted them to make a sudden announcement last month: Come August, there would no longer be deans at its middle and high school.
Among other responsibilities, the deans have been the ones who determine how students who misbehave are disciplined. Statistics kept by the district showed that students of color who visited the dean were more likely to be suspended, either in or out of school, than their white counterparts.
— At Urbana High, 228 black students have received at least one referral to the dean's office this school year, compared to 81 white students.
Fifty black and two white students left the dean's office with out-of-school suspensions. Eighty-five black and 20 white students received in-school suspensions.
— At Urbana Middle School, 252 black students have received a referral, compared to 77 white students.
Fifty-four black and nine white children served out-of-school suspensions. Eighty-five black and 28 white students left the dean's office with in-school suspensions.
"So they're now putting all these statistics out there, like 'Oh black kids are punished more,'" Palmer said. "OK, that's not news for us. We all know it — especially in the black community. Maybe as a community we didn't know what to do to stop it, but we knew about it."
According to the Illinois State Board of Education, white students have outnumbered black students at both Urbana high school and middle school every year since it began tracking enrollment data online in 2002.
But the gap has closed significantly in recent years, and, in 2017, stood at 36.5 percent white to 34.2 percent black at the middle school and 38.2 percent white to 37.2 percent black at the high school, according to ISBE.
In Don Owen's nearly five years as superintendent, the district had "always" reviewed discipline data, he said. But it hasn't always done so in a way that revealed racial disparity.
"The way we've looked at it is often the overall trend — and for a number of years, that's been the focus because it makes us look good," Owen said. "So if you look at the overall trend with out-of-school suspensions, the overall numbers have been going down, which is a really good thing.
"But when you look at a disparity ratio, you have to be honest. (We) are going in the wrong direction. We shouldn't have a disparity ratio where students of color are twice as likely to be suspended out of school than you would expect for the percentage of the population they represent."
But that is exactly the situation the district is in, despite multiple attempts in recent years to make the discipline system more fair for all students.
"I will say I've been in the district long enough to know at one point, deans were introduced at the middle school and high school — high school first and then at the middle school — as a way of addressing these disparities," Owen said.
Then came another attempt at UMS and UHS: the introduction of restorative practices, which the district defines as "a process of having conversations in which all parties have an equal voice." Staff members were taught how to organize "conflict circles," in which students involved in any incident could sit and talk through their problems in the hope of resolving issues on a deeper level than a suspension might.
District officials believe the implementation of this process in recent years has played a key part in reducing the overall number of suspensions. For example, the out-of-school total at UHS went from 98 to 77 to 65 the past three years.
But there are limits to how much — and who — the restorative practices have helped.
Owen, for one, is eager to find out what happens in Urbana's disciplinary process without deans as part of the equation.
"The dean's role is to process and provide consequences for students who receive discipline referrals," he said. "The role has evolved and, over time, they've become a major force in our switch to restorative practices. But then there's also this kind of contradiction in that the dean is who you go to to set up a restorative circle and prevent a problem from happening.
"The dean is also the person who's going to be processing the discipline referral and possibly excluding you from school. That kind of conflicting idea makes it difficult."
Another problem with the current system, according to Owen: The restorative practices haven't resulted in black students being punished less than their white counterparts.
In fact, officials found, black students were being more harshly disciplined — even in just the first semester of this school year.
"When we got the data for first semester and did a data dig at the end of September, we saw that it was actually getting significantly worse for students of color," Owen said.
The acceleration of the divide is what Owen said prompted administrators to start seriously considering the removal of the dean position in January.
Behind closed doors, those discussions intensified, setting the stage for what would become a tense school board meeting the night of March 6.
One day earlier, UHS Principal Matt Stark broke the news to his staff during a regularly scheduled meeting: When the 2018-19 academic year started, there would be no more deans at the middle and high schools.
The same day, UMS Principal Scott Woods emailed his staff with the same news.
The resulting confusion and outrage was palpable a day later during the public comment portion of the school board meeting. Teachers and school staff, unsure exactly why the decision had been made, approached the board. Some choked back tears. Others spoke with voices that shook with anger — demanding explanations, pleading for the deans to not be removed and asking why their input had not been included in the district's discussions.
"The decision to eliminate this position came without collaboration or transparency with the very people who teach Urbana," 25-year district employee Ronda Driscoll said. "The decision does not make us feel unique, and the transparency and collaboration that made our district unique is gone."
Addressing those in the audience, Owen clarified that the deans themselves would not lose their jobs. Their titles were changing but they'd remain employed by the district if they chose to stay.
All six deans at the two schools declined to comment for this story.
"We are not firing these individuals and we are not saying they have not done an excellent job," Owen said that night. "The primary function of dean has been dealing with student discipline. We want to do that in a system that doesn't have deans because our restorative practices will be so strong."
Not everyone was satisfied.
UHS math teacher Daniel Bechdel said he knew from analyzing the school's discipline data that the racial disparity merited some sort of change, but he remained skeptical that eliminating the deans was the best solution.
"I can tell you based on what I looked at, the disparities are difficult to point toward the deans," he said. "It's really hard to use the deans as a scapegoat because I don't know in which part of this they would be responsible for the disparity. The teachers send the referrals to the deans. The deans would have to be singling out African-American students — I didn't see it."
What some teachers didn't see, Palmer did when her now-grown children were students. She said two of her sons had run-ins with deans at the middle and high school that, to her, confirmed the power the position carried.
She said one of her sons, who is autistic, was physically removed from his UMS classroom and taken to a dean's office during a "meltdown" — common for some autistic children.
"The school's rule is not to put your hands on them unless you're in fear of them hurting themselves or hurting someone else," Palmer said. "He wasn't hurting anybody. He was on the floor, having a little meltdown. Normally, they just kind of back up and let them have their little moment."
When she arrived at the dean's office where her son was, Palmer said, she learned the dean planned to suspend him.
"I said 'You don't even know Dylan,'" Palmer said. "Dylan is autistic."
The dean, according to Palmer, wasn't aware of that.
"I said, 'You didn't know anything about him, but you should have found out before you put your hands on my child,'" she said.
Years later, another son at UHS would be suspended for being unable to make it to a class on the opposite side of the building on time, she said. Also a student with a disability, Palmer said he was too shy to tell the dean why he was late to class every day and remained silent during questioning.
"Between two of his classes, there are four-minute passing periods," she explained. "One of his classes is on one end of the building at the first floor, and the other on the other end of the building at the top floor. So instead of him coming to me — or even, he has a case manager — instead of coming to one of us and saying 'I don't have enough time,' he got in trouble a couple of times for running. Then he can't run. Now he has to try to quickly walk, and he was being late."
His punishment, per the dean: an in-school-suspension, during which he missed all of his classes.
Palmer said she knows of other African-American parents who have experienced the downside of Urbana's current discipline system. That's why, at the March 13 board meeting, she spoke up in favor of the new plan.
"We should have visited this issue a long time ago," she said. "I've been complaining for years — that's why I was asked to speak. It's past time."
What happens next is still being hashed out by school officials. Woods, the UMS principal, said he'd like additional staff in his building.
Thursday night, Stark indicated during a meeting with Latino families that new staff in all-new roles is a possibility at UHS.
"One would be a freshman transition person who would help that transition for students from middle school to high school," he said. "Another position is a student engagement advocate whose job it is to continue to put restorative practices in other levels so everyone knows how they work. They are not charged with discipline."
Ideally, he said, that advocate would be able to detect root causes of problems students encounter, so they could actually resolve them.
Stark also said UHS could add two "lead clinicians" to help students with serious behavioral issues.