What for some Oak Park young people began as a group discussion on school disciplinary injustices has grown into a mature stance against Oak Park District 97’s approach to its own disciplinary matters.
Earlier this year, the Oak Park-based Secular Jewish Community and School, hosted a talk by Jessica Schneider, a staff attorney with the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law.
Dox Raskin, a 13-year-old Percy Julian Middle School 7th grader and one of six area young people participating in SJCS’s B’nai class — a course designed to prepare them for their Bar and Bat Mitzvahs — listened to the attorney intently. He said he was introduced to concepts he’d never really thought too deeply about before that point.
“We were very interested in the presenter, because she talked about things like the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Raskin in a recent interview.
He was referencing what the American Civil Liberties Union defines as punitive policies and practices that “push our nation’s schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. This pipeline reflects the prioritization of incarceration over education.”
Spurred along by Schneider’s talk, Raskin and his fellow B’nai classmates decided to see if that pipeline had any resonance in their own school districts. So, they managed to retrieve a District 97 student suspension report for January 2016. What they found, they said, shocked them.
Half of the 24 in- and out-of-school suspensions handed out that month were given to African-American students, who comprise around 21 percent of the D97 student body. All but six were given to students who received free or reduced lunches. Eight of the suspensions went to students with Individualized Education Plans [IEP’s], which indicate special education status, and three were given to kindergarteners.
Half of all suspensions doled out in January were for fighting and other acts of aggression, according to the data. The next highest, around 17 percent, were due to a vague infraction called “defiance,” followed by suspensions due to abusive language.
Seventy-five percent of all suspensions were out-of-school, while the rest were in-school suspensions. Three students in the district, all minorities, received multiple out-of-school suspensions. The data also suggests that discipline is handled differently across schools, with some prioritizing in-school over out-of-school suspensions and vice-versa.
“We knew it was happening in other schools thanks to [Schneider’s] presentation, but we wanted to research if these things were happening in our district, too,” said 13-year-old Estelle Slocum, a B’nai student who’s also a 7th grader at Julian. “When we realized it was, we were surprised. We didn’t notice this happening before.”
Slocum said she was particularly “shocked” to find that students with IEPs were receiving suspensions with such regularity, instead of “getting the treatment and help they need.”
Raskin expressed similar shock when he saw the suspension data, calling the high number of IEP-related suspensions “morally wrong.” The Julian student said he doesn’t think it’s fair for special needs students to be given the same punishment as students without the same kind of emotional issues.
When referencing the disproportionate rate of African-American students who were being suspended, Raskin was frank.
“I don’t think many of the teachers realize it, but I think there’s some subtle racism that teachers are acting upon,” he said. “Racism has been in America for many years, so maybe teachers don’t realize they’re acting on it. But on a very subtle level I think they are.”
Slocum said she was particularly troubled by the suspension of kindergarteners, particularly because the issue hit close to home.
“That was scary, because I have a younger sister who is a little older than a kindergartener,” she said. “I don’t know what a 5- or 6-year-old can be doing that’s so bad to get suspended.”
When the B’nai students expressed their dismay at the January data to D97 administrators in e-mails and phone messages, they said they were “met with silence.” The unresponsiveness, they said, prompted them to take their concerns to a May 24 school board meeting, where Slocum and Raskin spoke during public comment.
In a response to the students issued on June 7, D97 conceded that its disciplinary data “does reflect disparities in the way that discipline is administered across our schools,” but that the disparity is a problem afflicting other districts across the country as well.
The district referenced its partnership with Oak Park Township on a restorative justice pilot program, its recent work on examining how “bias affects decision making” and its attempts to get in compliance with a new state law designed to prioritize treatment-based alternatives over punitive disciplinary policies, among other changes, as examples of the progress it’s made toward ameliorating its disciplinary problems.
For students like Slocum and Raskin, that response may not supplement the power of knowing for oneself.
“If more students are made to be aware of this issue, we could talk to the board together and make more of an impact,” said Slocum.