What is better in the long run for a troubled kid and his school? Suspending the kid or making him own up to what he did wrong and make amends?
For Chad Adams, principal since 2013 at Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, it’s an easy call. By helping kids take responsibility for their actions, his staff reduced out-of-school suspensions by 73 percent in one year. Most importantly, kids stopped acting up as much; misconduct episodes dropped by 45 percent. Attendance also is way up. It’s now at 90 percent, up from 80 percent two years ago.
Instead of turning to a suspension, staff expect a misbehaving kid to talk it out with an adult or go to the peace room, which is staffed by a full-time facilitator. Staff have been trained in these restorative practices, as have the kids.
Critics say we’re “not holding kids accountable,” Adams told us. But my students have to “reflect on what they did wrong and how they’re going to make it right; what they’re going to do to fix the problem and their relationships. They’re learning from the things they do rather than going home and watching Maury” Povich on TV if they’re suspended.
“We still suspend kids; I did it yesterday,” Adams said. “But their needs are being met, their voices are being heard. . . . Consequently, they’re coming to school more.”
Chicago Public Schools leaders says they want more schools like Sullivan — schools that suspend less, that help kids change behavior more. Faced with withering criticism of CPS’ long-standing zero tolerance discipline approach, the school system beginning in 2012 amended its discipline policy to reduce the length and frequency of suspensions and encouraged restorative and constructive discipline practices, such as peace rooms and social skills coaching. Over the years, it also has invested in staff training and has hired social and emotional specialists and restorative justice coaches.
But a new report shows the work is still in its infancy.
The percent of high school students receiving out-of-school suspensions has dropped, from 23 percent in 2008-2009 to 16 percent in 2013-14, but the rate remains stubbornly high, especially for low-achieving students, black boys and special education students, according to researchers at the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research. Data released last week by CPS shows that trend accelerating, with a big drop in out-of-school suspensions after the first semester this year, though that data is preliminary.
During the same time period that out-of-school suspensions dropped, the U. of C. found that the number of in-school suspensions grew; it nearly doubled for black students since 2008. This finding suggests that many schools are simply swapping an outlawed punishment (out-of-school suspensions) for another (in-school suspensions).
Research makes clear that suspensions, while good for keeping control in the short term, generally don’t help kids or schools. Suspensions typically don’t improve student behavior, school climate and often lead to worse outcomes for kids, including failed courses, repeated grades and dropping out.
New seeds clearly have been planted across CPS. Schools like Sullivan are taking off, and the U. of C. reports that since 2008 annual surveys show that high school students feel safer and teachers say schools are more orderly. That’s good news in a world where schools can no longer quickly restore order by suspending a difficult kid.
But CPS’ effort to train teachers in restorative practices and to outfit schools with more mental health professionals and staff to work on constructive discipline is limited by dollars and cents. We urge CPS to stick with this approach and up the investment.
Most suspensions, the researchers found, result from behavior problems, not violence or illegal acts. Some 60 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for school rule violations, defiance of school staff and disruptive behavior.
The answer, then, is to change behavior, not just to punish.