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U-46 seeking to utilize suspension alternatives


By Seth Hancock
  Over the past several years School District U-46 has touted a decrease in out-of-school suspensions (OSS) which comes as a new public act is set to take effect next fall.
  Illinois Public Act 456 will go into effect on Sept. 15 which states OSS “suspensions of 3 days or less may be used only if the student’s continuing presence in school would pose a threat to school safety or a disruption to other students’ learning opportunities,” but it is vague on details in defining such instances stating those instances are to be dealt with “on a case-by-case basis by the school board or its designee.”
  U-46 has been working on lowering its number of OSSs each year seeing that number at the secondary level drop from 7,082 in 2007-08 to 1,827 in 2014-15. Several administrators traveled to Washington D.C. last summer to be recognized by the Department of Education for that decline.
  However, does the decline in these numbers mean schools are any safer? What is the reason for focusing on this data point?
  John Heiderscheidt, director of School Safety and Culture, spoke with The Examiner after an anonymous letter was written by someone who said they were a South Elgin High School teacher which painted an unflattering picture of that school’s environment. The three-plus page letter was sent to several media outlets as well as U-46 staff members according to the writer.
  “Reduction in school suspensions is really about keeping kids off the streets, keeping kids out of danger, out of harm’s way,” Heiderscheidt said. “Kids on the street during the school day mean they are possibly getting involved with a lot of informal economies and activities that necessarily we don’t want them to.”
  Heiderscheidt added: “Out-of-school suspensions were in a day when a parent was home or somebody was home and it may have been effective in reducing behavior, but it’s certainly not the case now. Many kids are sent to empty homes, empty places. We don’t know where they’re going. I’d much rather have them in school.”
  U-46 spokesperson Mary Fergus told The Examiner via email that the reduction doesn’t “mean or imply that there has been a reduction in behavior infractions” but “in fact… results in keeping students in school while these students are in emotional distress, involved in behavior infractions, and in need of additional staff time and resources. This creates additional challenges for teachers, support staff and administrators to provide interventions for students in our persistent efforts to teach and improve life skills for students.”
  In February, then teacher’s union president Kathryn Castle posted a blog to the Elgin Teacher’s Association website titled “Suspension Down Frustration High” in which she wrote schools have become “to resemble prison like settings,” and “this data point has come to represent the failure of the system rather than its success.”
  “We have shared ongoing experiences of individual teachers, trying to work with limited site resources and endless directives for data collection, only to find many classrooms losing instruction while they try to accommodate the needs of one student,” Castle wrote.
  The anonymous letter stated that OSSs are still available “but they are there in name only,” and this practice has done an “effective neutering of teacher authority” whereas previously a “teacher held a healthy and generally respected” position in class.
  The Examiner submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking directives on “how and when a student should be suspended or expelled and how they’re reported as well as how fights are reported and when and how staff can intervene in a fight” over the past two school years.
   The results of that FOIA showed that the central office is in control of suspensions at least up through second grade as a directive from then Superintendent Jose Torres in 2013 stated that “no student in grades Pre-K through 2nd grade can be suspended without my approval,” a practice still in place according to the “Student Behavior Response Guidelines for 2015-16.” No directives were received under the FOIA showing the same past the second grade level.
  The “Student Behavior Response Guidelines for 2015-16” states that students who have received an OSS must have a “re-entry plan” in which it’s “preferred that parents participate but not required,” and “no student will accumulate more than ten days of OSS for 1 school year. No student will receive OSS for 3 or more consecutive days unless approved by the Coordinator of Student Discipline.”
  Also received under the FOIA was the “Action Steps-Immediate Intervention” guideline which Heiderscheidt said comes from the Crisis Prevention Institute, an organization the district uses to train staff.
  The anonymous letter said that “fights are a regular occurrence” at South Elgin High School and that teachers “behind closed doors state that we along with students who have been candidly open and vulnerable don’t feel safe in our building.”
  Heiderscheidt said that “fights are not a daily occurrence” at South Elgin but recognized that they do occur in schools and are “sometimes the basis of human conflict, and when we have schools students are going to have human conflict… I would hope that we would have environments in our schools where students would go to an adult in the school instead of fighting in school or fighting at all, but that’s not always the case.”
  The action steps for dealing with a fight state to “not intervene alone,” which Heiderscheidt called “a recipe for disaster” if “a staff member jump(s) into the middle of two people fighting,” and that staff should use distraction techniques like yelling the student’s names before intervening. Staff should “move the audience” and intervene when “their energy has decreased and you have the advantage,” and once the fight has finished staff should “thank the students for stopping and encourage them to make good choices” before investigating and holding them accountable.
  Heiderscheidt said that although “there’s no two situations that are ever the same… there is a basic template of action that is always best practice.”
  The anonymous letter claimed the effort to reduce OSSs has been made at “a social/political level as well as a financial level” rather than what’s best for dealing with poor behavior, but Heiderscheidt said “that couldn’t be the farthest from the truth.”
  The letter stated that funding from the state is partly dependent on daily attendance which Heiderscheidt said “yes, that is true, but the purpose of reducing out-of-school suspensions is reducing the possibility a student might end up in the law enforcement justice systems which [would not] reduce cost to society. Do we really want more students on a pathway to jail by, what the research says, over-suspending or over-using exclusionary tactics having them get more involved in street activities? There’s a cost to that, a high cost to that, that’s much more than educating a student in school.”
  Heiderscheidt said the letter writer is “someone who’s frustrated” and that he invites staff with concerns or frustrations to meet with him to discuss strategies.

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