Oak Park's D200 board mulls next steps on discipline

Culture change, increased student engagement are needed, members say

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By Terry Dean

Staff reporter

District 200 school board members were pleased with the turnout and candid conversation at their Dec. 6 board retreat, focused on the high school's discipline system. 

The roughly five-hour, morning-to-afternoon session included more than 50 people, including administrators, parents, students and community members. Improving the current system while delving deeper into the racial disparities affecting students and teachers was a common theme at the retreat, which took place at the Oak Park Public Library Veterans Room. 

Near the end, board members weighed in on their thoughts about the Saturday session and next steps. Jackie Moore, who came up with the idea for the retreat, was amazed that so much was accomplished at the retreat. 

"Coming onto the board, my goal has always been that everybody had to be at the table and decision-making had to be a shared process," said Moore, who was elected last year. 

"I'm wearing my necklace, and it's a pendant that says, 'Listen.' It is a reminder to me, and what I have taught my children, that everybody has a story, and the only way we're going to move forward and find our shared humanity is by listening at least as much as we talk," she said, adding that student and family voices are an important part of the process.

"[They] are critical to understanding how our school is going to best serve and best prepare our young people to move out in the world and lead."

The next step is to have a student-led discussion around these same issues, she added. 

Several ideas and solutions came up at the board retreat, including instituting a "restorative justice" model in the school, i.e. hiring more social workers and male mentors, and developing a peer mediation program. 

Board member Ralph Lee said the next step is to boil all these ideas down into something manageable for the school to implement.

"We have far more suggestions than we can actually manage to do right away, which means we've got to have a process of narrowing things down to what we can accomplish this year and over the next three years and 10 years, and put it into some kind of realistic framework. I believe the direction we seem to be heading in is a wonderful one."

Lee added that the majority of students aren't getting into trouble. There were only seven infractions in the most serious categories, he noted, including drug use, bringing a weapon to school and gang activity.   

"Seven serious offenses out of 3,200 students means that, as communities like ours go, we're a pretty well-behaved bunch of folks, or at least we have kids who are a pretty well-behaved bunch of folks, and I believe we tend to lose sight of that," Lee said.

Board member Sharon Patchak-Layman hoped the retreat would lead to a "core of action" the school will take.

"This has been a conversation that's been on the table for a really long time," she said. 

Oak Park and River Forest High School has long held itself up as a "traditional comprehensive high school," she said, but wondered if that model is working for all students.

"How much of that history of being a traditional comprehensive high school stands in the way of being able to look at things that are happening around the country at other schools that are moving schools and students forward," Patchak-Layman said. 

She added that some of the student experiences shared at the retreat questioned this model. Some students and adults talked about OPRF being a "black and a white school." Better understanding student experiences was among the solutions offered at the retreat. 

 "Students are saying is what their tradition is at the school, and I'm not sure many of us in the room really want those to be the continuing traditions of the school — that there's two separate schools," she said. 

President John Phelan and board member Tom Cofsky noted that the school has spent a great deal of time talking about building pools but not much about this topic.

"I am tremendously energized to actually spend this quality time talking about the culture of our students," Cofsky said, adding that he also wants to engage students more on this issue. 

Phelan said he was pleased with the level of respectful discussion and openness in sharing ideas. The board and administration will dissect what was discussed at the retreat before coming up with specific program and policy changes. Another discussion, especially with students, is also needed as a next step, he said.

"I agree with exactly what was said earlier, that we need a culture change. I think we've got a room full of people who believe we need a culture change and who want to do that right thing … but this does need to be sustained," Phelan said. 

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