HYDE PARK — Chicago Public Schools' move away from automatically harsh discipline for student misconduct has dramatically reduced the number of suspensions in middle and high schools, though black students continue to be suspended far more often and for far longer than any other group, according to a new study.
The study by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research found that a move away from a zero-tolerance policy where administrators were required to harshly discipline students who acted up has cut down on the number of suspensions and reduced the amount of time kids are out of the classroom for misbehaving. The study applies to all CPS middle and high schools, including magnet schools, but not charter or alternative schools.
Out-of-school suspensions have dropped for five consecutive years since CPS instituted the Culture of Calm Initiative in 2009 with more restorative justice and counseling programs for students.
“In 2013-14, about 1-in-7 high school students, 16 percent, received an out-of-school suspension,” the study says. “This number is down from the highest point in the 2009-10 school year when about 1-in-4 high school students, 24 percent, received an out-of-school suspension.”
The length of suspensions has also shortened, particularly since 2012 when CPS started requiring principals to get district approval for suspensions longer than five days.
“Our new and improved student code of conduct is a significant departure from our disciplinary structure that tended toward no tolerance,” said Aarti Dhupelia, chief officer of college and career success at CPS. "We put tighter parameters around what students can and can't get suspended for."
But the benefits of the policy change have not been spread out equally.
For black students, out-of-school suspensions were replaced with in-school suspensions and they saw none of the new leniency that white and Latino students enjoyed, according to the study.
Researchers found that after the policy change in 2009, the rate of in-school suspension for black students doubled while remaining steady for all other groups.
New data from the first semester of the 2014-15 school year not included in the study shows out-of-school suspensions for black students has continued to decline, while in-school suspensions have remained steady.
The length of the suspension has started to balance out, but black students continue to be suspended for longer periods than white or Latino students, according to the study.
Dhupelia acknowledged that the reduction in racial disparities was “slight.”
"Racial disparity in suspension still does exist and it’s an issue we are continuing to work on,” Dhupelia said, adding that CPS was looking at other school districts for possible solutions.
The researchers found that students were largely not being suspended for fighting or drugs.
“Student defiance of adult authority and general school rule violations are the most common type of offense leading to suspensions,” the study says. “At the high school level, 62 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 87 percent of in-school suspensions are a result of defiance of adults, disruption or breaking school rules.”
The researchers found that teachers and school administrators are not handing off disciplining students to police and often don’t call police even when CPS policy requires them to.
“In interviews, school administrators noted they typically did not contact police for one-on-one fights, but for more severe conflicts that might involve multiple people, gangs, weapons, battery or injury,” the researchers write.
A survey found that students and teachers have felt schools have become safer and more orderly over the last eight years.
“Regardless of the reason for these trends, at the very least, they suggest that the declining use of suspension rates has not led to a worsening of school climate,” the researchers write.
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