CPS softens strict discipline policies

District revises Student Code of Conduct to reduce suspensions, expulsions

June 24, 2014

(WBEZ/Becky Vevea)
Students activists have been pushing to eliminate strict discipline from CPS schools.

Chicago Public Schools is officially changing its Student Code of Conduct so fewer kids get suspended and expelled.

The move comes after national data showed African American and Latino students being suspended at disproportionate rates. Chicago was one of the worst offenders.

It’s something CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she noticed when she first started working in Chicago.

“It’s the strictest zero-tolerance policy that I’ve ever seen in the country,” Byrd-Bennett said in a conference call with reporters on Monday. “We have a broad range of suspendable offenses. For example, we’re the only major school district that allow(s) for out-of-school suspensions for cell phone use.”

The new code of conduct eases up on allowable cell phone punishments, but a school may still suspend a student for using a cell phone in school if it “seriously disrupts” the environment.

Others changes include: eliminating suspensions in preschool through 2nd grade, requiring that a note goes home when a suspension is given out, and eliminating vague categories like “persistent defiance”. School officials said internal data showed the largest racial disparities for African Americans in the “persistent defiance” category. Officials did not make that data immediately available.

A student activist group that has worked for several years to eliminate zero-tolerance discipline called the move a step in the right direction, but argued more work needed to be done to reduce police presence in schools.

Shawn Brown, an organizer with Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, or VOYCE, said there is still a lack of resources at the school level to properly implement restorative discipline. He said  the district’s plan to train principals during a one-day workshop this summer is unrealistic.

“That’s not anyway to teach anyone about restorative justice,” Brown said. “It’s not something you can do in one day.”

CPS officials said there is no additional money in the budget for extra staff to focus on reducing suspensions and expulsions through restorative justice.

The Chicago Teachers Union also issued a statement calling for more support staff in schools, saying “each school needs fully trained personnel to address any issues that students may have.”

“These personnel should not be part of a third party vendor program or grant—they should be part of the permanent school staff,” the statement read.

A WBEZ investigation in May found more than 50,000 students in CPS had gotten at least one out-of-school suspension. A dozen schools suspended more than half of their student body and nearly all are majority African American schools, serving 90 percent or more black students.

The investigation also found wide variation in how discipline plays out from school to school. Charter schools tended to suspend more students in elementary grades than district-run schools and schools run by the Academy for Urban School Leadership suspended large portions of their student bodies.

Charter schools authorized by CPS do not have to follow the district’s Code of Conduct and many are known for having stricter environments. AUSL does have to follow the district’s discipline policies, but Byrd-Bennett said there is no formal process when a school is out of compliance.

The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the proposed changes during Wednesday’s monthly meeting.

Becky Vevea is a producer for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.