Disciplinary infractions for the first semester of the 2016-17 school year at Oak Park and River Forest High School have decreased dramatically from the first semester of the previous school year, a development that school board and community members didn’t necessarily greet with enthusiasm.
OPRF Principal Nathaniel Rouse presented the new data at a Jan. 17 regular board meeting. Rouse said there was a total of 1,141 disciplinary infractions for the first semester of the 2016-17 school year, down from 1,873 for the first semester of 2015-16.
Out-of-school and in-school suspensions decreased even more drastically. This first semester, there were 69 out-of-school suspensions and 49 in-school suspensions given out, a reduction of 93 percent and 82 percent, respectively, from the previous first semester.
Rouse’s presentation, however, prompted numerous District 200 school board and community members to express a range of concerns they had with the report.
“The discipline report tonight appears to be an occasion for a certain kind of celebration,” said Oak Park resident Carl Spight during public comment. “It shows a dramatic reduction of in- and out-of-school suspensions. This could be an occasion of one early declaration of victory. You surely must know there is no justification for that and you should be motivated by some important caveats as you look at the data.”
Spight, a professional statistician who was a member of the study team that created the 2003 study on the learning community performance gap at OPRF and who has provided statistical services to the district in the past, said that the dramatic decline in infractions and suspensions seems to appear without a sufficient explanation for what is driving it.
“What’s going on with input and outputs with respect to what appears to be dramatic reductions?” Spight asked. “Is it possible for there to be such a dramatic reduction in in-school and out-of-school suspensions without a dramatic change in school climate and the associated, lived experiences of students in that climate such that they changed their behavior or such that the institution changed its behavior? What happened? Where is the explanatory model that I do not see present in the report?”
Rouse acknowledged that part of the explanation is Senate Bill 100, a state law that went into effect last September, which puts restrictions on the authority of schools to suspend and expel students.
Under the new law, schools are required to take “reasonable steps to minimize suspension” and determine that a student is “a continuing threat” before handing out suspensions, according to district officials.
That explanation, however, only added fuel to the fire of suspicion, expressed by Spight and several board members, that the new data could reflect school officials’ priority to stay in compliance with the new law, as opposed to actually changing the disciplinary climate at the high school.
“How do we know that there is any reason to be happy about what we see? Is this a rigging of the data [or a] suppressing certain kinds of consequences?” asked Spight. “Or is there something fundamental happening?”
Rouse said that recently the high school has been leaning much more heavily on its pupil support services teams, which comprise social workers, guidance counselors and student intervention directors offering services such as conflict resolution, bullying prevention, and home visits, among many other functions.
He said there’s also been a dramatic increase in less punitive and more proactive forms of discipline, such as calls home, and conversations with counselors and teachers. Last year, for instance, school officials stopped issuing in-school suspensions for tardiness.
“Those are ways that we have, as an administration, tried looking at discipline differently and [tried being] more restorative as opposed to being punitive,” Rouse said.
But that explanation wasn’t sufficient for some board members.
“There’s an assumption made that restorative practices are the reason why the discipline has gone down, yet I don’t even know if we’re using a model for restorative practices,” said board vice president Jackie Moore. “[Those] mediations, parent conferences [and] parent phone calls [are] not connected with any infractions, so I don’t know when those things occur. And those reductions in number could be just an artifact of [SB 100].”
Moore added that the data doesn’t seem connected to deeper outcomes, such as “whether our kids are more engaged, whether their GPAs have gone up, whether teachers have fewer classroom management issues [and] whether more kids feel connected to their teachers.”
Jeff Weissglass, the school board president, echoed the criticisms of Moore and other board members urging for more specificity about what constitutes restorative disciplinary practices.
“I was concerned about the way the term ‘restorative practices’ is being used in this document,” Weissglass said. “Restorative practices needs definition for us — whether its models or parameters. We need to know what is and isn’t restorative practices if we’re going to use it as a term; otherwise, it becomes rhetoric and meaningless. A teacher sending an email is not restorative practice in my view.”
Moore said that the district needs to invest not only in a “data warehouse,” but also in in-house data expertise so that the data is conversant with actual practices.
District 200 Superintendent Joylynn Pruitt-Adams said that her administration will “go back and look at the capacity of our system to integrate data and then develop a process to show a correlation between student behavior, interventions and results.”
Pruitt-Adams defined results to mean “reduction in behavior, repeat behavior and the academic progression of our students.” She also recommended that a glossary of terms should accompany future disciplinary reports and that the staff members evaluate the current disciplinary data system’s ability to identify repeat offenders.
“If a student got a failure to serve, what was the intervention the first time? And then what if they refused to serve again? It would be interesting to know how many students are repeat offenders, because if we keep doing the same intervention over again, we need to ask ourselves why.”