school fence

While researchers have known for years that African-American students are more likely to be suspended than their peers of other races, a new report from the Consortium on Chicago School Research (CCSR) dives deeper into who is getting suspended, and why, in CPS. CCSR’s findings are extremely troubling: it turns out that the young people most likely to be suspended are those who are already facing challenges in other areas of their lives, including students with a history of being abused or neglected and students living in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. The authors of the study also point out that we need to consider these questions not only student-by-student, but school-by-school: some schools are very unlikely to suspend their students, regardless of race or gender, while other schools suspend a third or more of their student body each year.

A task force from the American Psychological Association has argued that suspension and expulsion based on zero tolerance policies in schools can lead students to feel “shame, alienation, rejection, and breaking of healthy adult bonds.” Authors of the CCSR report agree, finding that schools relying heavily on suspension create poor climates for instruction and learning, and harm students’ perception of peer relationships and safety.

One teacher interviewed for the study said that when youth are suspended, “that puts them behind in class work, school work, homework. So, then, when they come back [to school], and they’ve missed out on [that] instructional time, then they’re frustrated because we’re on something else [now]…[And] then you’re acting up again because you’ve missed out on something [else] and so…you’re frustrated because…you’re lost and you don’t know where [the class] is at.” CCSR authors labeled this pattern as a “vicious cycle of misunderstanding, misbehavior, and missed instruction.” They also found that half of suspensions in CPS are given without any complementary strategy to prevent the behavioral issue from recurring, such as a parent conference, restorative justice measures, or other practices that could make it less likely that the student would be suspended again. And in the schools that have the highest rates of suspension, it’s not clear that these measures make a difference.

These findings suggest that the district’s recent push for all schools to find alternatives to suspension are a move in the right direction, but that there are more fundamental questions of climate that need to be addressed on a school-by-school basis. Just as a teacher uses both whole-class strategies and special interventions designed just for struggling students, CPS needs to focus hard on those 25% of schools that are suspending a third or more of their students every year. If we are serious about cutting down suspensions, it will require identifying those schools that are suspending students at extremely high rates and digging deep to understand what support is needed to help school leaders find alternatives: additional counseling resources, ongoing professional development on the use of restorative justice, new parent engagement strategies, or other interventions.