Flexibility, peer review aids school discipline

Flexibility, peer review aids school discipline

(Ill.) Challenged by one of the nation’s most violent and embedded gang cultures, Chicago Public Schools embarked five years ago on an effort to improve school safety and to address student behavioral problems.

New research evaluating the district’s progress shows some significant gains have been made, suggesting the move away from zero tolerance to a more flexible approach has merit.

In 2009-10, about 24 percent of the students in CPS drew an out of school suspension at least once during the school year – an all-time high at the district. At the same time, gang violence in several parts of inner city Chicago was drawing national headlines, much of it instigated by youths under the age of 18.

As part of a broader government response, CPS provided several high schools special funding to implement pilot intervention programs they hoped would help students develop better relationships –not just with each other but also with the adults working at the schools.

Among the strategies tried out were peer juries – where students are trained to analyze conflicts and suggest appropriate discipline – restorative justice, a similar strategy in which students are brought together in peer-mediated small groups to talk, ask questions and air their grievances. Targeted schools also hired additional counselors.

The next year, CPS rolled out the program to six more high schools and to nearly 40 more in 2010-11.

A new report from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research found that since the district began implementing the new discipline program, out-of-school suspensions dropped from 24 percent to 16 percent in 2013-14.

That said, researchers found that in-school suspension rates have nearly doubled among African American high school students during the study period. Among African American boys the rate went from 15 percent in 2009 to 29 percent last year; among African American girls, it jumped from 12 percent to 20 percent.

Researchers said they believe some schools are using in-school suspensions in instances where they previously used out-of-school suspensions, or shortening the length of out-of-school suspensions.

“In-school suspensions tend to be shorter than out-of- school suspensions and they allow for the possibility that students could receive an intervention or support while serving the suspension,” the report said. “Yet, they still result in a loss of instructional time for students.”

The research team noted there is a high degree of correlation between behavior problems and classroom performance. There are some unmistakable demographic trends too.

African American students are much more likely to be suspended than students of other races/ethnicities, the authors pointed out:

  • About a third of African American boys in high school (33 percent) received an out of school suspension in 2013-14.

In comparison, 13 percent of Latino boys in high school and 6 percent of white/Asian high school boys received the same discipline in 2013-14.

  • African American girls also have high out of school suspension rates in high school, at 23 percent in 2013-14. This compares to rates of 6 percent for Latina girls and 2 percent for white/Asian girls.

Not surprisingly, another subgroup that is often subjected to school discipline – students with disabilities – continued to be even under the new CPS system: Out-of-school suspension rates for students with identified disabilities were 24 percent at the high school level and 16 percent in middle grades in the 2013-14 school year.

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