A bill sponsored by state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-4th) designed to help eliminate the racial disparities in school discipline outcomes in the state was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner last month. The bill passed the General Assembly with bipartisan approval in late spring.

A statement released by Lightford’s office cites a 2012 study, which found that Illinois leads the nation in the number of black students it suspends and has the widest disparity among states between black and white student suspensions.

The issue has surfaced in recent months at District 91 as well [Black students suspended at higher rate in D91, News, May 6].

Last school year, according to Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) enrollment data, African American students comprised around 18 percent of all PreK-8 students in the state — but they made up around 40 percent of students in those grades who received at least one in- or out-of-school suspension.

The ISBE data shows that 17 African American students in Forest Park School District 91 received at least one out-of-school suspension. Due to privacy concerns, suspension levels pertaining to students of other demographic groups didn’t show up in the data if they were less than 10 or if they indirectly helped disclose the identities of students in other groups. According to state enrollment data, black students comprise more than half of the students in D91. 

The new legislation, which takes effect Sept. 15, 2016, is designed to “help ensure that all students are in school and off the streets as much as possible,” according to Lightford’s statement.

It also requires school districts to “limit suspensions and expulsions to the greatest extent practicable” by stating how a suspension or expulsion best serves the interest of the school and by limiting disciplinary removals of more than three days to students who present on-going threats to schools — and even then, only after having exhausted all other options.

Come next September, districts will also need to allow suspended students the opportunity to make up their work and must create re-engagement policies for students who are disciplined.

“Constantly suspending and expelling the very kids who need to be in school is one of the most counterproductive practices of our education system,” Lightford noted. “We need to keep young people in school learning how to succeed and off the street corner learning how best to end up in prison.”

In April, Lightford stated, in an article published in the Illinois Times, that “schools are suspending kids for 10 days, flat out.” She said many expulsions are taking place and “kids are not in school learning as they should be. I do recognize that kids need to be disciplined, so the bill does allow that to remain.”

In a recent article by Huffington Post national correspondent Christina Wilkie, Lightford’s bill is part of a more comprehensive national dialogue about the connection between school discipline and the criminal justice system.

“As the nation engages in a broader conversation about criminal justice reform, school discipline policies are emerging as a key factor that can alter a young person’s course in life,” Wilkie reported last month.

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com