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New law means Illinois schools must limit long-term suspensions

State Sen. Kimberly Lightford at the Senate in 2014. | AP file photo

Illinois schools are now required to limit long-term suspensions and expulsions under a new law that also eliminates the use of zero-tolerance policies used to severely punish students for certain offenses.

The law that took effect last week is designed to reduce the number of days students are pulled from classrooms and encourage school administrators to use suspensions as a last resort.

“So it becomes a school system that says, ‘What can we do to keep this student in an academic setting?'” said Sen. Kimberly Lightford, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the legislation.

Illinois lawmakers passed the bill with overwhelming support last year. States have been rethinking the zero-tolerance policies that gained prominence following the mass shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School in 1999.

Colorado and North Carolina eliminated zero-tolerance policies in 2011. Florida passed a law in 2009 that encouraged schools to consider alternative forms of discipline instead of referring problem students to law enforcement.

The new Illinois law requires schools to suspend students more than three days only in cases where they pose a threat to the school and all other disciplinary options, including counseling them or involving them in after-school programs, have been exhausted. For longer suspensions, schools will be required to give students support services while they’re away and allow them to make up work they missed. The law says schools also will need to explain their rationale for expelling someone.

“I think it’s going to allow some better communication between the parents and the teachers and the staff,” said Joe Burgess, superintendent of the Genoa Kingston School District.

Jennifer Gill, superintendent of Springfield Public Schools, said the district has spent the last year training and informing teachers, security guards, nurses and other staff in preparation of the law. She said the state gave the schools no additional funding to implement changes the law requires.

School suspensions have decreased the last two years, but there are still racial disparities, according to figures from the Illinois State Board of Education.

During the 2015 school year, more than 296,400 students were suspended, down from nearly 340,000 in 2014. Suspensions longer than 10 days also decreased, from nearly 1,200 in 2014 to just over 650 in 2015.

Students were suspended for fighting, using drugs and having dangerous weapons, but most were placed in the “other” category, which the school board data doesn’t explain.

Black students are far more likely to be suspended than their peers, a trend that has persisted since at least 2009 when an Associated Press analysis found that more than half of all children suspended from Illinois public schools were black, even though they represented less than one-fifth of enrollment.

The percentage of black students being suspended has decreased only slight since 2009. They made up nearly 45 percent of the suspensions in 2014, and just over 47 percent in 2015.