OPRF Superintendent Greg Johnson delivering opening remarks. | Provided

A few weeks after a student walkout in protest of sexual harassment at Oak Park and River Forest High School and just two days after another fight at the school OPRF hosted what it called a community conversation on safety last week. Nearly 100 people attended the event that was held in the school’s South Cafeteria.  

For the first hour of the two-hour event OPRF administrators presented data and talked about how they handle safety issues at the school. During the second hour the attendees engaged in small group discussions with each other while an OPRF administrator took notes. About 20 or so students from the student group Students Advocating For Equity (SAFE) also split up among the 10 or so tables to contribute to the discussion. The students provided an on the ground perspective on how things are at OPRF.

“I thought it was a great discussion, it was very informative, very educational,” said Lisa Azu-Popow, the mother of an OPRF sophomore. “I walked away learning more than when I came in. Very transparent.”

In a surprise to some, student referrals for inappropriate physical contact of a non-sexual nature, such as fighting or shoving, is down or on par with recent years. According to data presented by OPRF Superintendent Greg Johnson 56 students have been referred for disciplinary action for inappropriate contact of a non-sexual nature this year compared to 76 students for all of last year, 65 in the 2019-20 school year and 75 in both the 2018-19, and the 2017-2018 school years. In the 2011-2012 school year there were 102 such referrals. If it seems like there have been more fights this year than in the past it could be because fights are more publicized on social media than they were in the past with students taking videos of the fights.

“I went to a big, chaotic high school and there were fights all the time, so the numbers were, I thought, more favorable to the school than expected,” said Elise Dysart, the mother of an OPRF freshman.  “We see it online and then it lives forever in memes and so you get this impression that there’s these violent outbreaks at the school every week and the numbers don’t prove that out.”

But Johnson acknowledged that fighting has been an issue at OPRF this year.

“There is no doubt that we’ve had prominent fights,” Johnson said.

Teachers and security guards at OPRF have expressed concerns this year about fights and other discipline problems at OPRF. The school is in the process of hiring six additional security guards to try to provide more security and promote order in the school.

Some have wondered whether the school’s emphasis on restorative justice, a philosophy that emphasizes repairing harm and improving behavior instead of just focusing on punishment for bad behavior, is behind some of the issues at OPRF.

But Principal Lynda Parker said state law now limits what is called exclusionary discipline, suspensions and expulsions, and that, in any case, OPRF is committed to the restorative justice approach.

“Ultimately we are a learning and teaching institution so we always default to teaching,” Parker said. “When a student shows us that they’re having difficulty in any area of discipline our first response is to teach them the behavior that we want them to have.” 

But the school does impose consequences for rules infractions and is moving to get a little tougher in its response to bad behavior. OPRF’s Behavior Education Plan uses a philosophy of progressive discipline and has five levels of responses to bad behavior ranging from level one, managing an issue in the classroom without an administrative referral, to level 5, intensive administrative intervention that can result in an out of school suspension or even, in extreme cases, a recommendation for an expulsion.

 Starting with the next school year the administration is proposing to raise the starting level of 10 offenses including gang activity, moving from level two to level three, to disruptive and uncooperative behaviors, also moving from level 2 to level 3. Level two offenses can lead to up to one day of in-school suspension, now called in school reflection, while level 3 offenses can result in up to three days of an in-school suspension. Possessing more than three grams of a drug other than marijuana, an amount that suggests selling, will become a level 5 offense that could lead to expulsion. The school board could approve the changes at its next meeting on April 27.

According to a survey students feel a little less safe at OPRF this year compared to last year. This year 83 percent of students responding to a survey said that they feel mostly or very safe in OPRF hallways compared to 81 percent one year ago although the percent of students who feel very safe in OPRF’s hallways declined to 32 percent this year from 37 percent last year.

Students felt slightly less safe in OPRF bathrooms than they did in the hallways. This year 75 percent of OPRF students surveyed said that they feel either very safe (28 percent) or mostly safe (47 percent) in OPRF bathrooms compared to 80 percent last year. In the small group discussions some students said that OPRF bathrooms are often crowded and chaotic with vaping and drinking sometimes going on. Some students try to avoid the bathrooms. The mother of an OPRF junior said that her daughter doesn’t drink water during the day in an attempt not to have to use the school’s bathrooms. The number of students cited for vaping at OPRF has increased to 77 this year, up from 49 last year.

OPRF sophomore Paige Thomason said that she thinks sexual harassment doesn’t get enough attention from school officials.

“I think we want this issue brought up just as much as drugs or drinking,” Thomason said.

School officials have discovered six weapons infractions at the school during the current school year. Five knives, four of the pocketknife or Swiss Army knife variety, have been discovered as well as one knife with a blade longer than three inches. One student brought a mini-BB gun to school this year. Over the last four years two real guns have been discovered on the OPRF campus.

One parent thought that OPRF, with approximately 3,400 students, is just too big and the administrator at her table agreed.

At the end of the evening Johnson, who dropped in briefly at a number of small group discussions, said that he heard authentic, honest engagement not polarized discussions.

“It’s healthy and inspiring,” Johnson said.

Tammy Highfill, the mother of an OPRF sophomore, had a similar reaction.

“I found the conversations extremely productive and everyone was very nice, very concerned, very open to hearing everybody’s ideas,” Highfill said. “I don’t think there are any big solutions that parents can come up with tonight but it seems like this was a pivotal night because perhaps more conversations will happen after this.”

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