Discipline figures jump sharply at OPRF

Black students still over-represented in cases

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By DREW CARTER

Discipline numbers exploded last year at Oak Park and River Forest High School, with increases seen in in-school and out-of-school suspensions and in expulsions, a school report shows.

The number of consequences?#34;punishments for incidents that break the rules?#34;rose to 1,776, a 93-percent jump from the number of consequences a year earlier, 919.

At a school board meeting Thursday night, administrators explained that increase as being caused by a change in handling truancy, which resulted in more After School Program (ASP) punishments given, as well as more incidents of "failure to serve detention." ASP requires a student to stay after school for three hours of supervised homework time.

The change caused the number of ASPs given to more than double, rising to 1,219 from 572 in 2002-03 and 535 in 2003-04.

ASPs made up the bulk of the suspensions?#34;1,219 of 1,776, or 69 percent. That's up from 58 percent and 56 percent in the previous two years.

Before last year, attendance officers handled truancy, and consequences were not included in discipline figures. But last year, teachers handed out their own detentions for tardiness, forwarding "failure to serve" incidents to the discipline deans, thereby bulking up the discipline numbers, administrators said.

Truancy and failure to serve detention were by far the most common offenses for earning a suspension last year.

Suspensions and expulsions on the rise

But increases were seen aside from ASPs. In-school suspensions rose 36 percent over last year's figure, and 24 percent over 2002-03.

Out-of-school suspensions, given for more severe actions, jumped 68 percent over last year, 25 percent over 2002-03.

And expulsions, reserved for the most serious offenses, went from 23 in 2003-04 to 41 last year, an increase of 78 percent. Expulsions have not numbered more than 30 in the past six years.

More students with special needs were suspended last year, too. Suspended special ed students (134) rose by about one-third over 2003-04 (102) and by 11 percent over 2002-03 (121).

But because of the rise in the overall number of suspended students, special ed students' share of the suspended population shrank to 21 percent, down from 24 percent in 2003-04 and 29 percent in 2004-05.

Signs of a 'discipline gap'

Once again African-American students were over-represented in discipline cases, something seen at other schools and what educators are calling the "Discipline Gap."

Although they composed 25 percent of the student population last year, African-American students made up 48 percent of students receiving discipline, 52 percent of students with disabilities receiving discipline, and 59 percent of expelled students.

In fact, freshmen blacks were suspended more than twice as often as their white counterparts?#34;male and female. That meant percentage-wise, freshmen blacks were three times as likely to be suspended.

For example, 11 percent of white freshmen males were suspended, whereas 54 percent of black freshmen males?#34;more than half the population?#34;were suspended.

The white-to-black ratio continued through other grades: sophomore, 15 percent to 49 percent; junior, 21 to 53; senior, 21 to 41. And for females: freshmen, 7 percent to 32 percent; sophomore, 8 to 27; junior, 11 to 37; and senior, 6 to 22.

The school has identified students prone to discipline problems, and will write individual "prescriptions" for each student suspended last year.

"We know who these kids are," said Donna Stevens, asst. supt. for pupil support services. "Now we just need to come up with a plan" to involve parents.

District 97 connection

Board member Yasmin Ranney said OPRF needs to get together with Oak Park Elementary School District 97 to get to the root of the problem.

"This is not happening overnight," Ranney said.

Principal/Supt. Susan Bridge said she has a meeting scheduled with Dist. 97 Supt. Connie Collins.

But Board President John Rigas said the high school's top two problems are with truancy and failure to serve detentions.

"Dist. 97 and [River Forest] District 90 aren't going to help us on that," Rigas said.

Julian Middle School Principal Victoria Sharts said the belief that there is a disconnect between Dist. 97 and OPRF is a "misconception."

"I do not believe [students] arrive at the high school without a clear understanding of what the behavioral expectations are," Sharts said.

Shart would not say whether African-Americans are over-represented in discipline incidents at Julian, and said demographic representation "varies by the type of incident."

In April of this year, candidates for the race for the Dist. 200 school board expressed some concern that the freshman class was a particularly unruly bunch. But Wednesday Journal reported in June that that was not the case with expulsion figures: 11 expelled students were freshmen, while 15 were sophomores, 8 juniors and 7 seniors.

However, newly released data shows African-American male freshmen had a high rate of discipline problems. The school measures recidivism rates?#34;the number of times a student who gets in trouble has gotten in trouble again throughout the year. A rate of 2.0 would mean the student was suspended twice.

The recidivism rate for freshman was 3.72, 32 percent higher than the class with the next highest rate, juniors, at 2.82.

The rate for African-American male freshman was 5.44. The lowest rate, 1.40, was seen with African-American female seniors.

"We had some additional challenges with that class," Sharts said, referring to last year's freshman class at OPRF.

Although class totals show members of the freshman class were suspended evenly with other classes (except juniors, who were suspended more and at a higher rate than other classes), the 59 black male freshmen who were suspended was the most for any race in any grade.

OPRF Institutional Researcher Carl Spight said problems with behavior are correlated with poorer grades. The grade point average for the 80 percent of the population not being suspended last year was 3.3, while the remaining 20 percent's average was 2.0.

"There's something going on, we know, with academics and behavioral [problems]," Spight said. "If we are going to attack the achievement gap, we need to attack the discipline gap, too."

Wyanetta Johnson, an APPLE leader at the high school, said many black students enter the high school with good grades but become caught in the discipline system nevertheless. APPLE stands for African-American Parents for Purposeful Leadership in Education.

Johnson says more nurturing is needed for OPRF students, and that parents are the ones to bring it.

"They [administrators] must open up those doors and allow the parents to be part of the solution to the problem," Johnson said. "The solution should not be finger-pointing. We should work together to help the children."

Lynn Allen, Dist. 97's director of multicultural education, said black children see images of African-Americans portrayed on television and believe their culture is defined?#34;and limited?#34;that way.

"Some of our kids don't know how to be black," Allen said, adding that black children need to be "bi-cultural" in navigating two different cultures, one of which makes them believe they are acting "white" by achieving in school or participating in certain extracurricular activities.

At Thursday night's meeting, board member Dee Millard expressed concern over the rising number of girls getting into trouble.

"We're focused on race, but we need to look at gender, too," she said.

CONTACT: dcarter@wjinc.com

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