A spike in expulsions at Oak Park and River Forest High School this school year has officials there scratching their heads as to the causes and hoping new programs will rein in expulsions next year.
"It certainly concerns the board," said John Rigas, Dist. 200 school board president. "You don't like to see those kinds of numbers."
Last year, the board voted to expel 23 students. This year's expulsion number had grown to 41 as of last Friday, days before the end of school. In the four previous school years, expulsions numbered 28, 19, 11 and 30.
"Right now, I couldn't tell you the cause of this," said Principal/Supt. Susan Bridge. "I would like to believe that it isn't that the problems students have or bring into the school are more difficult than they have been in the past."
"Until we see the statistics, it's very hard to say what caused this large number," Rigas said.
Bridge said her administrative team has been too busy closing the school year and planning for summer school to spend time interpreting discipline figures. She hopes to receive a report from a state audit of the school's discipline system in July, and plans to deliver the school's annual discipline report to the board in August. The latter report will also highlight plans for making any changes identified by the state audit.
The state audit will determine whether, once in the disciplinary system, students are treated fairly regardless of race.
The school's Joint Study Committee on Student Discipline and Behavior, composed of faculty, staff, administrators and parents, might also make recommendations for addressing discipline, Bridge said.
But officials say the types of behaviors that lead to expulsions are clear-cut violations: weapons, certain drug offenses, and severe behavioral displays, such as one student who threw a desk at a teacher, Rigas said.
"That's something we're not going to tolerate," he said.
One explanation for the jump is group incidents. Two incidents this year brought on the expulsions of nine students, OPRF officials said. "It was not 41 separate incidents," Bridge said.
Early in the school year, Bridge and others saw a flurry of expulsion incidents that involved freshmen, leading officials to question whether that class was an anomaly, they were witnessing the beginning of a trend, or that the incidents represented a school-wide unusual year.
The freshman class did not turn out to be a bad bunch: 11 expelled students were freshmen, while 15 were sophomores, 8 juniors and 7 seniors.
Still, officials are concerned incoming students aren't prepared for new behavioral expectations at the high school. And they're reaching out to students before they act out and end up facing disciplinary consequences, modify the behavior "before it gets to the point where they're throwing a desk at a teacher," Rigas said.
This year the high school will roll out the Summer Bridge Program (no relation to the principal/superintendent), which will bring 50 students from the three feeder middle schools who did not make the grade to take their required summer school classes at OPRF.
Classes will push students in areas of academic weakness, but it also serves as "a more intense and intentional transition program for them," Bridge said.
The Bridge program, a collaboration of the high school, township and Family Services, will have an evening component, where students will return to OPRF with their parents or guardians.
"We are hoping through this evening program that they will learn a great deal about their new academic and social home," Bridge said. Students and parents will meet administrators, take tours, learn about co-curricular opportunities, and have "abundant time" to learn "what the behavior expectations are," Bridge said.
Students struggling academically tend to be involved in more discipline incidents, and the same is especially true for students not involved in co-curricular activities, Bridge said.
Audit ongoing; report will be public
Regional Office of Education Supt. Robert Ingraffia said that he hopes his audit team will conclude interviews with specific teachers and parents by the end of the month, and to deliver a final report to the district in July.
The report will contain its findings?#34;whether once students are in the OPRF discipline system they are treated fairly?#34;and recommendations for addressing any flaws found in the system, Ingraffia said.
The report should be available to everyone once delivered. "I have no reason to believe it won't be a public document," he said.
Students not actually expelled
Students at Oak Park and River Forest High School who are given expulsions, aren't actually kicked out of school. The high school offers two alternative schools for disciplined students to attend, where behavior is addressed and learning continues so that students have the opportunity to return to OPRF without falling behind academically.
Technically, students' expulsions are held "in abeyance" while they attend alternative schools, and can come back to OPRF or graduate from OPRF if they attend the alternative school successfully.
OPRF officials say providing alternatives to expulsions is unusual for schools.