THE LOOP — Dozens of students marched from Chicago Public Schools headquarters to the Thompson Center Wednesday in support of state legislation that would set new limits on suspensions and expulsions.
The march, organized by Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, protested alleged bias in school disciplinary practices and backed state Senate Bill 3004 setting stricter standards for offenses that can result in suspension or expulsion.
"We're not asking for no discipline," said Mariama Bangura, a junior at Roosevelt High School and a youth leader for VOYCE and the Albany Park Neighborhood Council. "We're asking for common-sense discipline."
Agreed a teacher at Roosevelt, Tim Meegan: "As a teacher, I'm the first person to defend a teacher's right to throw a student out of class for misbehavior that disrupts the educational learning environment. However, I see kids being suspended and expelled for minor infractions all the time, and it disrupts the student's education and impairs my ability to teach those kids."
Organizers of the march said hundreds of thousands of kids were suspended across Illinois last year.
"When you have a school year with 272,000 out-of-school suspensions, something is wrong," said Jessica Schneider, of the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which also came out in support of the bill in the General Assembly. "This legislation will make a big change for all of Illinois and make a big step toward better and common-sense student discipline."
The Obama administration has made it a hot-button issue, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the former CPS head, pointing out that African-American students are three times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled. Attorney General Eric Holder has said more liberal standards on school discipline are an attempt to cut the "school-to-prison pipeline," as students get off track academically and embark on a life of crime.
VOYCE has previously charged bias in school discipline and backed those new federal guidelines.
CPS said it shares the same goals on school discipline with the Obama administration and VOYCE, while resisting the new state law as too intrusive.
"Keeping students in the classroom and connected to their school communities is important to the district, which is why CPS revised its disciplinary policies to focus on instructive and corrective responses to misbehavior, resulting in a 36 percent drop in out-of-school suspensions for high-school students over three years," said CPS spokesman Joel Hood. "While CPS and VOYCE are aligned in their efforts to reduce suspensions and keep students in school, SB3004, as drafted, places strict limitations on administrators' ability to manage school safety and could potentially interfere with law enforcement's jurisdiction and ability to enforce safety on school grounds or at school-sponsored events."
CPS Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett and Mayor Rahm Emanuel have both touted added student involvement in school discipline this year, resulting in a 23 percent drop in suspensions districtwide over three years, from 46,803 in the 2010-11 school year to 36,046 last year.
But, according to Schneider, the state law would be more strict on what constitutes an offense worthy of suspension or expulsion than even those modified CPS standards.
"CPS is embarrassed, and they should be," said Darius Anderson, a senior at Dunbar Vocational Career Academy.
Protesters chanted, "Student power!" as they marched. At the Thompson Center, they delivered a letter to Gov. Pat Quinn seeking his support for the bill in the General Assembly. They also cracked open a Dora the Explorer pinata filled with No. 2 pencils and labeled "Our Illinois Discipline Code."
Schneider also pointed to how the Noble Network of charter schools had recently announced a halt to $5 disciplinary fines for detentions, which she said "unfairly affected low-income families, students of color [and] families living in poverty."
Parents and students have charged Noble with bias on discipline, and Meegan echoed charges that schools cherry-pick students to increase test-score averages by removing poorer students through expulsions.
The Noble Network sent a letter to parents this month saying the detention fine had become "a distraction" and "is not critical to maintaining Noble's culture of high expectations and safe school environment."
The bill is sponsored by state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-Westchester) and has cleared committee and is now under consideration by the full Senate.