Study Finds Disparities in School Discipline in Chicago

The University of Chicago published a new study on school discipline practices in Chicago. While they found the overall number of out-of-school suspensions had gone down, suspension rates for African American male students remained especially high. Similar to districts across the country, Chicago's suspension rates are strongly related to students' race, gender, disability status, and prior test scores. 

The study found that in 2013-14, about 1 out of 7 high school students received an out-of-school suspension. While this number is high enough, the rate of suspension was even worse for African American male students—of whom nearly one third were given an out of school suspension during the 2013-14 school year. African American female students, students with disabilities, and students with low test scores were also subject to disproportionate rates of suspensions.

What was the basis for all those suspensions. The study found that almost 2/3 of suspensions in high school were given for non-violent and often highly subjective misbehaviors such as "defiance" or breaking of school rules. Only 27% of suspensions were actually in response to physical conflict or other threats to student and teacher safety.

Importantly, the researches noted a negative correlation between how safe students and teachers felt in school and how many suspensions there were. When rates of suspensions decreased, feelings of safety actually increased. Clearly, the overuse of both in-school and out-of-school suspensions can be damaging for students and schools—not only do they deprive students (including already at-risk students) of vital instructional time, but in doing so they also contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline and prevent students from connecting with and feeling safe in their schools.

The University of Chicago study illustrates the importance of organizing groups like Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), which is currently leading a campaign for better disciplinary practices like restorative justice. These alternatives to harsh discipline policies focus on keeping students in school and helping them learn from their mistakes and make amends rather than simply barring them from classroom. VOYCE has been helping push for a state law to support these better discipline practices and SB100, which advanced out of the Illinois Senate Education Committee on March 17th, is expected to come up for a full senate vote sometime this week. If the bill passes, it will limit the use of out-of-school suspensions, create greater consistency in discipline across schools, prohibit the use of disciplinary fines or fees, and help students stay on track.

You can listen to a University of Chicago researcher, a Chicago Public School representative, and VOYCE coordinator Jose Sanchez discuss the issue here.

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