OPRF says so long to zero tolerance

'Punitive' conduct code replaced with more 'restorative' plan

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

There will be major changes in store for students and adults whenever they return to the classrooms and hallways of Oak Park and River Forest High School — particularly on how students are disciplined. But despite the District 200 administration's overhauls, school board members are still not wholly convinced they will be enough to change OPRF's longstanding culture of racism and inequity.

The most significant change involves the Student Code of Conduct. Starting this fall, it will have a new name — the Behavior Education Plan. The D200 school board approved the new plan at a special meeting on June 16.

Some board members, while appreciative of the changes, expressed some reservations about the new Behavior Education Plan, particularly the speed at which it was being put in place and whether or not the changes sufficiently addressed the biggest impediment to radically changing OPRF's racial climate — the behaviors of the adults in the building. 

Board member Ralph Martire complained at the June 16 meeting that the new plan "felt a little rushed," although he said he appreciates "administrative constraints," such as a looming print deadline and some lead time required to get students abreast of the new changes that made a vote that night necessary.

Veteran board member Jackie Moore, who has witnessed multiple disciplinary tweaks and overhauls come and go during her time on the board, said she was concerned that the district's new racial equity policy was not reflected in the new plan.

LeVar Ammons, the district's racial equity director, responded that his office's impact on the new plan is evident in the plan's fine print, such as the procedures that will govern how the plan is carried out on a day-to-day level.

The plan places much greater emphasis on restorative practices and positive teacher interventions than consequences and punishment, said D200 administrators at a June 16 Committee of the Whole meeting that preceded that night's special meeting. 

During a board presentation of the new plan at the meeting, Lynda Parker, D200's director of student services, said the Behavior Education Plan marks a "shift in mindset away from our old practices and thoughts about what disciplinary actions look like."

In other words, the zero-tolerance, three-strikes-and-you're-out culture at OPRF, which was once dominant at many schools around the country for years, is effectively and officially a thing of the past — at least on paper.

The new Behavior Education Plan features five different levels of "possible responses to student behavior," with each behavior "assigned to one or more of these Response Levels," according to a document on the plan drafted by Parker and other D200 officials. The old code of conduct had only three levels, Parker said.

Level one behaviors include those that mostly take place in the classroom and are considered "disruptive or uncooperative" — from cheating and leaving class without permission to forgery and violating the OPRF dress code.

Parker said classroom teachers will be expected to "leverage the relationships and the culture in the classroom" to handle these kind of low-level disturbances, as opposed to leaning on deans to address them by meting out disciplinary transactions. Parker added that the plan is designed to ensure that the relationship between teachers and students is "always the first place we start to redirect" student behavior. 

Levels 2-5 all involve varying ranges of administrative interventions and restorative responses. Level 2 behaviors, which may include everything from possessing a weapon or look-alike gun to gang activity and inappropriate, non-sexual physical contact, would entail up to one day of in-school suspension, which the new Behavior Education Plan now refers to as "in-school reflection." 

Unlike the old code's in-school suspensions, the new in-school reflection centers will offer students "an opportunity to not only reflect but have restorative measures put in place so they can understand the behaviors that put them into the reflection center [and] we're not keeping students specifically away from the classroom. 

"So if there's a need for a student to complete a project or go in for a presentation they would have otherwise missed by being in the in-school reflection center, they'll be able to [go in there and get the grade] in addition to having work sent down to them by teachers, so the supervisors in that space can distribute that work while maintaining contact with teachers and parents." 

Parker said the new in-school reflection period is a way of "making sure we restore the student rather than outright punish them." 

Level 3 responses may include up to three days of in-school reflection. Level 4 responses may include up to three days of out-of-school suspensions while level 5 responses may include four or more days of out-of-school suspensions and/or recommended expulsion. 

Some behaviors, such as possessing "a weapon, other than a firearm or other gun, or look-alike gun" allow teachers and administrators some discretion, since they fall in every response level except for level 1 in the Behavior Education Plan. 

Parker said students nonetheless "have to progress through the different levels" before reaching a higher level. They "don't start at 4 if there's a level 2" response for a specific behavior, she said. 

For instance, behaviors involving alcohol, drugs and tobacco use immediately start at level 2 and progress to level 5 responses.

Other behaviors, such as possessing "a firearm, as defined by federal and state law (e.g., handgun, rifle, shotgun, starter pistol, etc.)" jump students immediately to a level 5 response. Still, actions that merit that kind of leap are few and far between, administrators said. 

Even in the most severe situations, such as where a student has demonstrated repeated substance abuse or brought a firearm to school, severe consequences like expulsion will be rare occurrences, administrators said. 

"We're saying, as a school, that with very few exceptions we are not going to be recommending expulsion or using the most severe exclusionary discipline even for kids who repeat these behaviors," said Janel Bishop, the lead dean at OPRF who helped Parker and Associate Superintendent Greg Johnson on the new plan. "That is a change from our practice of previous years." 

Bishop also said that even in categories involving weapons, "we still, as a school, are not jumping to a level 5, when in previous years, the mere possessions of a certain item came with a multi-day suspension and/or the recommendation for expulsion. We have now isolated those responses to very specific instances and other ones that do involve weapons will be reacted to with a less punitive response than in the past." 

Bishop added that certain language that stood out in the old code of conduct as too punitive has been scrapped. For instance, "acts of defiance" are not mentioned anywhere in the Behavior Education Plan.

Parker and Bishop said Black students were significantly overrepresented in that data category, even though it's not clear that Black students commit more "acts of defiance" than their white colleagues.

"We have tried to remove some of the more police-like language," Bishop said, adding that terms like "battery," "mob action," "gross misconduct" and "social probation" have also been axed from the new plan. 

Parker added that the administration's response to tardies, one of the main student behaviors that in the past led to disciplinary actions like in-school suspensions, particularly for Black students, will "no longer result in more loss of class time." 

Martire, who is a member of the district's Culture, Climate and Behavior Committee, said he believes the new plan addresses complaints he's heard from students and parents about the "lack of consistency in the application of our disciplinary rules."

The sharpest criticism of the new plan came from board member Gina Harris, who, along with Moore and Martire, also sits on the Culture, Climate and Behavior Committee.

Harris, who does restorative justice work as a climate and culture coach in District 97, said last month that while she can appreciate how different the new plan looks from "what I've seen before and how different it looks from when my daughter was graduated from there two years ago," she nonetheless had reservations about how the new plan's intentions will translate into the real world. 

"The disproportionate data on race, specifically for Black students, shows them being targeted more based on defiance, disruption and disrespect, but we're still asking the very same teachers and people who are creating that data to make a big shift in what they're doing," Harris said. 

"What we know is that adult practices shift student behavior — it's not the other way around. … Based on what this behavior plan is, I'm not sure we're actually going to see any differences in that data until the adult practices are addressed," she said. "I'm not necessarily seeing that in the same way I would hope to see it."

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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Reader Comments

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Doug Katz  

Posted: July 10th, 2020 10:33 AM

First no honors courses and now minimized discipline ?" what could possibly go wrong. So begins the steady slide to mediocrity, no personal accountability and implosion. What is not addressed in the article or the plan is the likely substantial impact on other students for bad behavior of the students who were previously removed from the classrooms. Making the teachers deal with these problems means that they are not teaching the students who want to learn. This is simply not fair. If you do not want to learn, you should not be in the class. If you think it is acceptable to monopolize a teacher's time through misbehavior and to steal the learning opportunity of other students, you should not be in class. Opportunity is given and the student can choose to accept it or not. If not, their decisions should not have an impact on others who have accepted the opportunity. My comments do not even begin to address the deeply disturbing "time out" approach to greater discipline issues. I understand the restorative approach and think it is laudable, but is the restoration of a single student worth the marginalizing of 5, 10, 25 or more? Many of these issues manifested years before high school and were not dealt with back when there was a better chance to have an impact. They possibility of success likely decreases with time, which make me question the viability of this plan. The adverse impact in the greater student body is a very real reality. Coupled with the aforementioned degradation of the honors program, I fear this will not end well for the school system which is a key draw of Oak Park. As with the others in this thread, I do hope that the outcomes are positive, but I fear otherwise.

Chuck Raymond from OP  

Posted: July 9th, 2020 10:28 PM

Well this is very thought provoking. It's too bad Mister Rogers is not around to help with implementation of this new code.His voice was soothing like the language of the code. Well at least bringing a weapon to school might not adversely affect a student's schedule for the day with the in-school reflection. Restorative yes. Lastly, as a graduate of OPRF 1977 I guess I didn't realize the "long standing culture of racism and inequity". We had friends of all ethnicities and abilities, and in four years I never witnessed anything I would consider discriminatory based on race. Of course no one promoted the idea back then so maybe that was the problem. I do hope the new OPRF code actually works and proves people like me wrong.

Ray Traynor  

Posted: July 9th, 2020 8:14 PM

Wow things have definitely changed. God help the teachers. The standards basically say anything goes. If caught we should all sit and ponder the angst which was caused.

Tom Scharre  

Posted: July 9th, 2020 7:38 PM

Is this on the level?

Marianne Zapotocny  

Posted: July 9th, 2020 4:33 PM

I think this article must have it wrong. If an impulsive person brings a dangerous knife to school he has a day out of class to "reflect" on it? It sounds like OPRF will be a very risky place to work or go to school. Does the student have to go through levels of discipline until he or she stabs someone to get to level 5?

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: July 9th, 2020 3:46 PM

I have posted this before. My name is Brian J. Slowiak, I was an OPPD police officer from 74 to 04. I did outside award winning police work in community policing. If you child/student is the victim of any offense on school grounds, call for a police officer to come to you home and make a report. Tell the police you will sign a complaint. tell the police you and your child will come to court, don't worry there will probably not be a court hearing. If the police say there is no basis for an offense, insist to speak to a supervisor, insist on a written report with a complaint number,, take that report to the States Attorneys office, ask for a review and the States Attorney will determine if there is evidence of an offense and direct the police to investigate further. Under no circumstances let the school be the only adjudicator of the incident. The OPPD keeps a separate file of all juvenile offenses. Only the police can access that file.You as a citizen will either be starting or adding on to an existing file which is filed by the last name of the offender . The school will not tell you this.The school wants total control and the school is not entitled to total control. Do not let the school be the only adjucator of the offense.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: July 9th, 2020 1:46 PM

Can we just treat students as individuals based on their individual behavior? That sounds radical in today's world for some reason.

Bill Stenger  

Posted: July 9th, 2020 12:00 PM

What did I just read? I cannot even begin to internalize this information. At a complete loss for words.

Neal Buer from Oak Park  

Posted: July 9th, 2020 9:03 AM

Is this a Saturday Night Live skit?

Rob Ruffulo  

Posted: July 9th, 2020 7:08 AM

This is laughable. Everything categorized by race. Student body should be treated as a whole. "Reflection Center" is like getting a time out.5 levels of criminal activity?? What a joke. Anything not to punish the poor babies...If they go to school and not commit any violations, give them a gold star for the day.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: July 8th, 2020 4:44 PM

That moment when the "and the schools are excellent" part of the local real estate sales pitch officially ended. Bring a weapon to school and you are welcome to stay around the other children, but remember mister, you are on double secret probation.

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