EAST VILLAGE — The mayor and his school chief touted advances in a more relaxed discipline policy Tuesday, saying the new system was an improvement over the zero-tolerance polices of years past, but without presenting much hard data.
"For too long, those old zero-tolerance policies have been a part of Chicago Public Schools," said Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett in a news conference at Wells High School Tuesday. She said the new, more liberal-minded discipline policy was actually instituted in 2012 as part of the Student Code of Conduct and was intended to instill "preventive practices and restorative responses."
Byrd-Bennett said the new policies were meant to keep kids in school whenever possible. "Suspensions must be the last resort," Byrd-Bennett said. She said suspending students only puts them further behind in their studies, resulting in a "vicious cycle." According to Byrd-Bennett, students who posed a danger to themselves or to others were among the rare instances more deserving of suspensions.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the new policy aimed at "checking and reversing zero tolerance," adding, "The old model of zero tolerance was reactive.
"It had clarity, but it also had consequences," Emanuel said. "This is a more proactive approach."
Emanuel and Byrd-Bennett cited Wells High School as the new example they hope to take citywide.
"We don't believe in out-of-school suspensions," said Wells Principal Rituparna Raichoudhuri, adding that the school relies on a "social-emotional approach" to discipline.
The new policies emphasize student involvement through peer juries and so-called peace circles over zero-tolerance, mandatory-punishment enforcement of rules such as cellphone bans.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has recommended easing discipline polices because they unfairly target minorities, a position echoed locally by student groups. But Byrd-Bennett cited no racial reasoning for CPS' change in policy, saying only that it was a personal, not a professional, issue for her to keep kids in school and on track.
Tomale Williams, a Wells junior and president of the school's peer jury, said the system had revived his faith in education and made him more articulate, with an interest in becoming a lawyer.
Keyanna Freeman, a Wells senior and member of the peer jury board, said her involvement had helped keep her on track to graduate this spring.
Byrd-Bennett claimed a 23 percent drop in suspensions districtwide over three years, from 46,803 in the 2010-11 school year to 36,046 last year. This school year, through January, suspensions are down 36 percent from three years ago, according to CPS.
Raichoudhuri said suspensions had been cut in half this school year at Wells.
But otherwise Byrd-Bennett said the district is still "scrubbing the data" on results of the new policy. She said she expects to have more data next month to present to the Board of Education to adopt a new Student Code of Conduct for deployment systemwide in June.
Byrd-Bennett said she expected the new policy to be extended to charter schools, which have been criticized for harsh disciplinary policies. "They are not required to follow our code of conduct," Byrd-Bennett said, but they have decided to "join us," she added, to make their codes more "aligned."