Critics, OPRF officials skeptical of discipline audit

Why black students enter discipline system questioned

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By TERRY DEAN

Critics of the state discipline audit at Oak Park and River Forest High School remain unsatisfied with its findings and methodology, charging that the review failed to look at how and why some students are placed into the system.

The audit, released last month by the Suburban Cook County Regional Office of Education, cleared OPRF of unfairly handing out disciplinary consequences to students.

Critics charged at a meeting last week where the report was formally presented, that it did not look at causes such as cultural differences and race that may play a part in the disproportionate number of black students receiving discipline.

"I knew they would not find any difference in the district's code of conduct," said APPLE President Wyanetta Johnson. "The problem isn't how children are treated once they're in the system. The problem is what is causing our children to be disciplined disproportionately."

Members of APPLE and the Citizens Code of Conduct Committee had originally called for a state audit. They voiced their outrage Thursday during a special Dist. 200 school board meeting.

Principal/Superintendent Susan Bridge said the audit's primary conclusion into the school's discipline record was significant and should not be ignored.

She added that the question of how students are placed in the system is a valid one that the school continues to wrestle with.

"We will continue to hold ourselves accountable, and hold our students accountable when it comes to proper behavior," she said.

Complaints in 2004 from both APPLE and the committee persuaded state legislators to push for an independent audit. APPLE and others have charged that the school's discipline system was unfair to black students, who for years have represented a large number of students given discipline. Quarterly numbers released this year indicate the same trend.

Of the 249 students who received in school, out-of-school and after-school suspensions from late August through mid-October, 128, or 51 percent, were black. Thirty-five percent were white while 14 percent were of another ethnicity. However, black students make up just 25 percent of the school's enrollment.

Clifford Meacham of the Citizens Code of Conduct Committee called the regional office of education's effort "a missed opportunity."

"What you have done will have no impact on the problems that exist in this school," he told Regional Office of Education Supt. Robert Ingraffia, whose office conducted the 16-month study.

Study: parents and faculty fear reprisals

Ingraffia defended the final report, saying its findings were consistent with other studies looking into discipline at OPRF. The three-page final report was, in part, based on surveys and interviews conducted with OPRF parents whose children were disciplined, and members from APPLE and the committee. Both groups cited specific discipline cases for the review team to investigate.

The review team ended up interviewing only 11 out of the 60 parents initially approached, said Ingraffia.

Ingraffia said some parents did not respond to interview requests. OPRF faculty was also scheduled for interviews, but none responded, Ingraffia said.

Ingraffia said some parents and faculty refused to talk for fear of reprisals from the school. Ingraffia said his office found no evidence to support those fears, but indicated it was a concern the school needs to take seriously.

"We were told that teachers feared reprisals. We didn't find anything to back that up. But we did find it very strange that out of a faculty of 300-plus teachers, no one to the best of our knowledge responded to our inquiries," he said. "Whether it's real or not, there is a perception out there and the perception becomes the reality, and you have to deal with making that perception go away as best you can."

Bridge said the claims of faculty fearing reprisals lack substance.

"I don't think that this faculty, being very direct and as honest as they are, would stay silent on such an important issue," she said. "I believe if they had a profound concern, they would step forward and say something."

Board members and other administration also questioned the validity of those claims.

"I think we need to be very careful about what the non responses tell us," said Philip Prale, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "I don't think they fear reprisal from us. The lack of response may mean that everybody is very comfortable."

Board member Jacques Conway, however, was concerned that there were no responses from teachers and faculty to the review team's requests.

"If you have a problem and you didn't think enough to respond on something that's as important as this issue, then that let's me know that maybe they don't think this is that important; that it doesn't affect you directly, but it does," he said.

OPRF response

OPRF administration Thursday made a number of recommendations in response to the audit.

Donna Stevens, assistant superintendent for pupil support services, outlined a number of initiatives, including: creating a parental brochure detailing expulsion policies; in-service training for faculty and teachers on race; routine meetings between faculty and discipline deans on student discipline procedures.

CONTACT tdean@wjinc.com

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