If you are a black student attending school in Forest Park you are far more likely to be suspended from school than if you are white or Latino.

Over the last five years, about 80 percent of the suspensions handed out in Forest Park Elementary School District 91 were given to black students while less than 10 percent of suspensions were given to white students. According to the 2013-2014 Illinois School Report Card, 46.7 percent of D91 students are black, 24.5 percent are white, 15.5 percent are Hispanic and 7.5 percent are mixed race. At each school in the district black students have been suspended at a rate that far exceeds their percentage of the student body.

The disparity in suspensions has caught the eye of the Chicago Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights Under Law, which became involved in the recent appeal of a suspended black second-grader at Betsy Ross School.

“We’re analyzing the data and we’re investigating,” said Jessica Schneider, a staff attorney for the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law Educational Equity Project. “I think the data is very concerning. We don’t see racial disparities in every district that we’ve dealt with. I will say most of our clients are students of color, the vast majority of them that we represent in school discipline proceedings, and that we’ve seen a general disparate impact in Illinois on students of color.”

The issue is not unique to D91. Across Illinois and across the nation, black students are suspended at higher rates than white or Latino students. In the 2011-2012 school year, the last year for which national data is available, 7.6 percent of black elementary school students were suspended compared to 2.1 percent of Latino students, 1.6 percent of white students, and just 0.5 percent of Asian students.

At Forest Park Middle School, 256 of 318 suspensions (81 percent) handed out from 2011 through March 13, 2015 were given to black students, according to D91 data. But middle school principal Karen Bukowski says that race plays no role in who gets suspended.

“We suspend students based on the District 91 Code of Conduct in alliance with our PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention System) hierarchy of consequences and those rules and guidelines are enforced unilaterally for all students regardless of race or ethnicity,” Bukowski said. “I’m never happy when I have to suspend any student. To keep any student out of school is not an ideal situation, but there are certain offenses where it is necessary for us to send them home for a day or two. Usually that is the maximum.”

Having a black principal did not affect the racial disparity in suspensions at Field Stevenson School. Since Tiffany Brunson became principal at Field Stevenson in 2012 38 of the 39 students she has suspended are black.

“I’m very sensitive to that and that’s the reason I try to employ other means,” said Brunson. “I look at every student individually. I look at the infraction. I look at the student. I look at what occurred.”

Brunson said she is aware of various theories that have been advanced trying to explain why black students get suspended more often than other students. Some have pointed out that black students are more likely to come from poor, often single-parent households.

“They all make sense to me, but I will be very honest with you. I don’t subscribe to any of those excuses,” Brunson said. “I think a child’s background is an explanation, but it should never be an excuse.”

Others have pointed to racism, perhaps unconscious, on the part of teachers and administrators. Some have argued that teachers and administrators often treat black students more harshly than white students, sometimes punishing them more severely for the same or similar offenses. Sometimes white teachers have trouble dealing with black kids. Field Stevenson has only one black teacher, Brunson said (87.6 percent of D91 teachers are white and only 5.6 percent are black).

“Teachers are no different than anyone else,” Brunson said. “It’s not as if they leave their biases at the door.”

Brunson said she has worked to make her staff aware of the racial disparity in suspensions.

“It definitely is something that we talk about, and it’s definitely something at the forefront of discussions we have,” Brunson said. “I think there has been a shift in culture. I think there has been improvement, a lot of improvement, because I don’t think it used to be something that was even discussed.”

D91 Superintendent Louis Cavallo didn’t want to discuss the issue of racial disparity in suspensions with the Forest Park Review.

“I decline to be interviewed about this, but I will provide the following information to help clarify a few things,” Cavallo said in an email. “The data supplied to you was by incident — not individual student. In other words, the same student could have been responsible for multiple incidents, so your assumption that this is disproportionate is misleading. Only 24.2% of our students are white and the majority of our students are black. It would be expected that there is a greater percentage of suspensions of the largest population compared to the smaller populations.”

Sean Blaylock, the only black member of the D91 school board, did not seem especially concerned about the racial disparity in suspensions although he was struck by the numbers when asked about the issue.

“I don’t look at it as this is a color issue; I look at this as a behavior issue,” said Blaylock who is leaving the D91 board in May after serving on the board for 10 years. 

“The numbers grab my attention.”

Appropriate discipline?

In February, a black second-grader at Betsy Ross Elementary School was suspended from school for a day after telling a white child that people with black skin can't be friends with people with white skin.

The comment was made while waiting for a bus after school when the black child, who has white parents, was angry after being excluded from a hand-clapping game. The child's parents were shocked and upset that their child was suspended. They appealed the suspension to District 91 Supt. Cavallo, and ultimately the D91 Board of Education unanimously upheld the suspension after an informal hearing.

The parents suspect their child would have been treated differently if she had been white.

"I feel my daughter was in no way engaging in any conduct that would justify a suspension, and the school took a punitive measure instead of trying to find a solution which could have easily been resolved through a conversation with the children," said the suspended child's mother. "Should the tables had been turned and my daughter not be African-American, we sincerely doubt that the discipline would have occurred in the way that it did."

The child's father was shocked that his 8-year-old daughter got suspended.

"My first reaction was there's no way they're going to suspend a second-grader," he said. "That's absurd. Why would you suspend a second-grader? She doesn't understand what happened. She thinks she was kicked out of school. I have a lot of friends who are educators and, to a person, they were shocked that this would cause a suspension."

The child's comment was classified as a Level III act of misconduct under the D91 Discipline Handbook. According the discipline code "Level III involves acts directed at persons or property where the consequences of the act could seriously endanger the health and safety of the individual involved and/or others in the school." 

In Betsy Ross Principal Bill Milnamow's letter to the parents, he wrote that their daughter's comment fit under section C of Level III as "verbal and/or written threats, intimidation, fear or other comparable conduct toward anyone or urging other students to engage in such conduct. Due to the comment being racially derogative and spoken with malice on the part of the student, an out-of-school suspension was issued."

Milnamow didn't respond to multiple phone calls and emails from the Forest Park Review. Cavallo also declined to discuss the suspension with the Review, saying that he couldn't comment on a student disciplinary issue.

School board member Sean Blaylock said Milnamow and Cavallo followed district policy and therefore the school board upheld the suspension.

"The decision was within the policy," Blaylock said. "I think the policy is appropriate. I think it's clearly written and it's clearly defined."

No adult heard the comment but the white child toward whom the comment was directed was upset about it and told her mother, who notified the school because the comment upset her daughter a great deal. The mother told the Forest Park Review that she did not want the other girl suspended.

Jessica Schneider, a staff attorney for the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights under Law, who represented the girls' parents at their appeal of the suspension before the school board, said that in her experience it is uncommon for second-graders to be suspended.

"This is the first client we've ever had in the last three years below sixth grade," Schneider said.

The Chicago Public Schools has recently adopted a policy that emphasizes restorative justice and prohibits the suspension of students in second grade and below "except for cases involving extreme safety concerns that receive network chief review and approval for suspension."

According to D91, data suspensions for second-graders and below are not frequent but not rare either. At Betsy Ross from April 21, 2011 through Feb. 20, 2015, 17 students were suspended. 12 of those students, or 71 percent, were black. At the district's other primary grade school, Garfield, 19 second-graders were suspended over a less than two-year period from 2012 to the fall of 2014. Eleven of those students, or 58 percent, were black.

A couple of months ago, another black Betsy Ross second-grader was suspended for a day for snidely reminding a fellow student that she wasn't born in America.

The mother of that child thought her daughter's comment was wrong but didn't think a suspension was the way to handle it.

"I don't feel like it was suspendable," she said. "I feel like it was a principal, mom and daughter talk in the office for an hour or whatever. Explain why it's wrong, why you shouldn't say it again, and if you say it again there's consequences."

The father of the recently suspended girl said his daughter was very upset about being suspended from school and had trouble sleeping for a while.

"She went for about a week where she was having stomach aches every morning," he said." Bad dreams. She was feeling sick every morning before she went to school. She seems better now, but for a week or two it was pretty rough."

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