Thursday, July 14, 2016 || Originally Published: Cook County Chronicle || 7/12/16 || By Jean Lotus
Changes in school district disciplinary procedures coming this fall around the state will seek to reduce the number of student suspensions and expulsions.
SB 100, signed last summer by Gov. Bruce Rauner, will provide a framework for districts to develop their own school discipline policies, filed with the Illinois State Board of Education. The new law, which takes effect Sept. 15, aims to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions in Illinois schools, and make out-of-school discipline measures the “option of last resort” after other procedures have been exhausted.
“We need SB 100 because I was fined a dollar for every stick of gum I had in my backpack when I was in middle school,” said CPS graduate Jaime Adams at a Springfield press conference. “I know students who were suspended or expelled for minor offenses like not sitting down on a chair, or using their phones in class. These policies are unfair, don’t change behavior and don’t help students learn,” she said.
Reacting to 2011 data showing that Illinois African-American students were suspended or expelled from school at the highest rate in the U.S., an educational task force, including State Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Maywood), worked for years to hammer out a proposal that protected students but gave school districts autonomy.
“What we found was that some districts are doing a good job, but many others were not,” Lightford said. A 2013 version of the bill was shot down by school administrators and law enforcement groups.
The new law gets rid of “zero tolerance” discipline policies unless the student can be shown to be a danger to others. It also requires schools to seek in-school discipline options, if possible, and to give written reasons for discipline measures.
Students who are asked to leave school are allowed to complete homework, and districts are required to check in with students when exiting and returning to school. The new rules also forbid fines for discipline infractions, and forbid counselors from encouraging students to drop out after a long absence from school, a practice known as “counseling out.”
In 2011-12, data from the U.S. Dept. of Education brought racial disparities in school discipline to light nationwide. For the first time, the department’s Civil Right Data Collection project collected discipline data from every school district in the country instead of just a sample.
Soon, researchers were making interesting findings: Illinois had the highest suspension rate in the country of African Americans (25 percent) according to a study by the UCLA Civil Rights Project.
“Zero tolerance” policies came into vogue after the 1999 Columbine shootings, Lightford said, and were originally used for students who brought weapons to school. But over time, “those policies were beginning to be misused,” Lightford said. In Illinois, suspensions between three and 10 days long were adding up to more than 1.2 million hours of instructional time lost in the 2010-11 school year. Often these suspensions were the result of “minor infractions,” she said.
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