There may not be a more interesting prism than discipline through which to view the evolution of Oak Park and River Forest High School over the past two decades. From angst and frustration in a long debate over whether black students were acting out or white teachers were overreacting to “cultural differences,” the discussion grew into a perception that black kids were over-disciplined and more likely to get more severe consequences than white kids behaving in the same obnoxious ways.
That led, several years back, to the creation of the deans of discipline and the code of conduct, which were intended to standardize consequences, regardless of race. And what’s the outcome? There are still more black kids — a disproportionate percentage of African-American students — in the discipline system but few charges that the system is rooted in racism.
OK, we’ll call that progress. But starting under former superintendent Attila Weninger and continuing under Supt. Steven Isoye, the approach to discipline in the school continues to evolve along more positive and progressive lines.
Last week, the school reported a 20 percent drop in discipline infractions during the fall semester. The school, James Q. Wilson-like, would point to its efforts to toughen up on small infractions such as tardies as a path to cutting the major nonsense. And we’d agree. More significantly, though, we like the effort to empower every adult in the building to be an adult and engage a student who might be using profane language, rough-housing or sporting a hat. That kid doesn’t need a detention; he or she needs to know there are grown-ups in the building holding him or her to account.
Now the school is retooling the discipline dean concept to create “student intervention directors.” It broadens the role beyond just meting out punishment, and it charges these staffers with intervening in the lives of kids who are flailing (or failing) for whatever combination of reasons. The interventionists will also work with teachers on classroom management practices.
This is exciting and positive change. And we applaud the entire staff for its efforts.