Illinois’ Experience with Rethinking School Discipline: the Value of Federal Guidance

By Justin Lam and Guy Johnson

The human brain is deeply dynamic; the architecture and genetic expression of each child’s brain grows and changes in response to that child’s context, experiences, relationships, and environment. From birth to early adulthood, the brain is very malleable. New consensus around the science of brain development is providing us with critical insights we can use to optimize student learning and development.

We know that trauma — and exposure to adverse experiences and toxic stress, which we will discuss more in successive blog posts — has a significant impact on a child’s cognitive, mental, emotional and developmental health, and ultimately, on a child’s’ success in school. The intrinsic malleability of the human brain, however, makes it possible for children, when in environments conducive for their success, to overcome come adverse experiences and excel.

Both science and fairness support the proposition that every child deserves instructional practices and learning environments that:

  • Are academically rigorous and rich, addressing the unique learning and developmental needs and strengths of each child;
  • Integrate academic, cognitive, social, emotional, identity, and health components;
  • Foster deep, positive, empathetic relationships that are culturally responsive and promote each student’s physical and emotional safety;
  • Engage integrated, comprehensive supports to meet individual student needs and address the effects of adversity, including poverty and racism; and
  • Include the intentional development of critical skills, mindsets, and habits.

Equipped with this understanding, we have an unparalleled opportunity to transform education and meet the needs of each and every child.

In the previous blog posts in this series, we explored a broader understanding of student “success,” explained the meaning of “trauma” in an academic context, and identified some of the ways that stress-related behaviors often manifest in classrooms. We also looked at the origins of the “Rethinking Discipline” federal guidance on school discipline. In this blog post, we will take a closer look at the relationship between federal guidance and efforts to reduce school discipline disparities in Illinois.

As a familiar debate continues about the elimination of federal guidance on reducing racial and disability disparities in the administration of school discipline, the need for constructive action has become even clearer: U.S. Department of Education (US ED) data shows that black students comprised 15 percent of enrollment in 2015–16 but accounted for 31 percent of students who were referred to law enforcement or arrested.

We’ve discussed the federal role in signaling priorities for states, the importance of transparency in the federal government’s reconsideration of guidance and how that should be driven by the voices and needs of community members and advocates, not by political shifts in the wind. Here’s why this is true not just in California, but in states across the U.S. — like Illinois.

Discipline gaps — both downstate and upstate

Day, after day, after day, Paris Taborn, a black student at Springfield High in Illinois, accumulated tardies and dress code violations that resulted in her being sent home from school. Frustrated with being sent home so often, and the reasons she was given by school staff for why she was being sent home, she transferred to the Springfield NAACP’s alternative school for her senior year. After she graduated, she enlisted in the U.S. Navy.

Paris’ troubles, transfer, graduation, and enlistment took place as the United States Department of Education (US ED) and the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) were collaborating on official guidance on school discipline and were developing new federal programs and initiatives around the “Rethinking Discipline” effort.

At the time, students and teachers in Springfield High and other schools knew from personal experience that school discipline policies were not working well, and were not being implemented equitably. Still, there was an active question of how much inequity was enough to require action. In the words of Kent McIntosh, an education professor at the University of Oregon, there were no “really clear guidelines from the federal government as to what is a problem and what’s not a problem.”

During the development and rollout of the federal “Rethink Discipline” effort, Illinois students were losing over one million instructional days per year as a result of suspensions, expulsions and arrests — which, in several cases, were the result of zero-tolerance policies that escalated minor infractions to out-of-class time.

In the 2012–13 school year, for example, Chicago Public Schools issued 32 out-of-school suspensions for every 100 black students, compared to just five for every 100 white students. While some would argue that the Illinois disparities were a result of the challenges of violence facing Chicago schools, similar differences in discipline rates could be seen in various schools across the state.

Students lead a statewide solution

This captured the attention of advocacy groups and lawmakers, with Chicago students forming a group called Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) and organizing a coalition to advocate for discipline reforms. For over two years, students regularly made the 3-hour drive from Chicago to Springfield to meet with lawmakers and persuade them about the statewide importance of school discipline issues and the school-to-prison pipeline.

The students eventually found a receptive audience in state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, who saw from federal civil rights data that Illinois had the highest black/white school suspension disparity in the country. Senator Lightford sponsored S.B. 100, a bill that banned zero-tolerance policies and emphasized restorative justice practices. The bill passed in 2016 as Public Act 99–456, and required that teachers receive ongoing training in classroom management, the consequences of exclusionary discipline practices, and culturally responsive and developmentally appropriate discipline.

Initial progress, without the needed resources for more

One year later, Illinois experienced 26,000 fewer suspensions. Indeed, the impact of school discipline reform in Illinois has been felt across a variety of districts. In Champaign, which already had programs addressing socio-emotional health, the district eliminated “mandatory minimum” suspensions, instituted a ban on suspensions lasting more than three days, and developed a policy to prevent sudden and impactful decisions on expulsions. The new policy requires educators to complete a one-page questionnaire within 24 hours of finding that a student has committed a possibly expellable offense.

As might be expected, however, not all districts and schools have transitioned smoothly to this new approach to school discipline. A report from Teach Plus Illinois found that while 84 percent of teachers reported that the law had been fully or partially implemented in their schools, districts didn’t always provide satisfactory training, and that in some cases, more adversarial relationships developed between students and teachers. It bears noting that S.B. 100 became law without dedicated funding to support the practices it endorsed; many districts, teachers, and school administrators have cited the lack of supporting funds as a stumbling block for further improving school discipline practices and school safety.

Lesson: states want this guidance.

This leaves Illinois at a turning point. The successes the state has enjoyed on school discipline and school safety came from a confluence of sustained local advocacy, knowledge of reliable data, and federal guidelines and informational support. With the possible rescission of federal guidance on school discipline and dedicated attention to these issues, these kinds of state-based efforts may lose momentum.

With this in mind, the passage of two bills in the Illinois legislature in 2018 are particularly noteworthy: HR0795, which urges the state to prioritize school climate and culture, and HJR0115, which urges the U.S. Department of Education to sustain an equitable school discipline guidance. Teachers associated with Educators for Excellence (EfE) helped draft both bills.

While it might initially seem odd for state government officials to ask the federal government for more guidance, more monitoring, more direct and ongoing involvement, these two bills exemplify the importance of the federal role: efforts like “Rethink Discipline” help clarify expectations, accountability and support.

“Rethink Discipline” created an equity-minded baseline upon which states can improve and extend their own efforts to improve school discipline policies and practices. The rescission of this guidance, with no replacement, would indicate the federal government is uninterested in the potentially discriminatory consequences of existing practices and whether schools should be held legally accountable for those inequities. While states have continued to innovate, a lack of leadership at the federal level will set back state efforts on equity in school discipline, even at a time when states like Illinois are ready to demonstrate the leadership our students need.