Schools Chief, Mayor Push Alternatives to Suspending City Students

WBEZ91.5

By Linda Lutton

Chicago Public Schools student Monifah Russell could have been suspended for disrupting class and throwing a textbook.

But instead, the Wells Community Academy freshman sat across the table from a jury of her peers, and together they decided on a response that would keep her in school.

Have you had any problems with this teacher before? the jurors asked Monifah. Do you feel like you’re argumentative often?  Why are you getting a low grade in this class? Do you feel you need to apologize to the teacher? Because peer jury is about hearing your side of the story, we would like to hear what happened, they tell her.

Everybody is calm, and after a conversation and some advice — “maybe you can talk to (the teacher) about a seat change” —  the jury and Monifah agree on a plan. She will offer a “sincere” apology to the teacher, begin making up missed assignments, and clean the teacher’s classroom. The peer jurors will follow up to make sure she does.

“You (and the teacher) can rebuild a positive relationship so you can have a better learning experience in her class. Does that sound good?” one girl asks Monifah.

“Yes, it does,” the freshman says.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett said Tuesday they want more student discipline in Chicago to look like what is going on at Wells, which also has 10 social workers — they are interns from a college program — and a “peace room” where students can work out conflicts before they become violent.

Calling the school “platinum” when it comes to restorative justice practices, Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett encouraged schools to try policies that turn troublemakers into student leaders, and move away from zero-tolerance policies, especially ones that keep kids out of school.

“There is still suspension here, they still use it, but it’s a last resort,” said Emanuel. “It happens so much less frequently, which also results in more kids on track to graduate and go on to higher education.”

Byrd-Bennett said zero-tolerance policies in CPS and nationwide “have done more harm than good.  When students are removed from the classroom for even a relatively minor disciplinary infraction, they miss valuable, valuable instructional time.”

The district has been touting reduced suspension rates, but has not provided any school-by-school numbers to show how it calculated the reduction. CPS says there were 46,803 suspensions in the 2010-11 school year and 36,046 last year. But those figures do not include suspensions at charter schools, and enrollment in district schools has plummeted in that time.

The federal government last month released guidelines encouraging schools to move away from zero-tolerance policies, which it says disproportionately affect African American and special education students.  Chicago exemplifies that trend: A  federal civil rights report shows black students in Chicago accounted for 76 percent of all students suspended, though they make up just 45 percent of student enrollment.

Byrd-Bennett says revisions to Chicago’s discipline code made in 2012 need to go farther. She says students can currently be suspended for minor infractions, such as bringing a cell phone to school.

Even as the district is pushing alternative discipline policies, it is opening more charter schools, a number of which have become synonymous with strict discipline and make no apologies for unbending rules and codes of behavior.

Byrd-Bennett says she wants to bring charter schools into line with the district’s discipline code.