'Glaring' equity gap in discipline at D91

Superintendent stresses need for answers, solutions

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By Maria Maxham

In what Superintendent Louis Cavallo called a "glaring" gap in equity, 75 to 80 percent of Office Discipline Referrals (ODRs) in District 91 are for African-American males.

"After looking at thousands of ODRs over the past three years, what's obvious is that African-American males are experiencing school differently than other students," said Cavallo. It is something, he said to the board, that cannot be ignored.

The problem was brought up at a recent National Equity Project (NEP) meeting Cavallo attended. D91 signed a contract with the NEP in February 2018 to address racial inequities and their impact on academic performance. 

At a Jan. 9 board of education meeting, Cavallo reported that at the most recent NEP meeting he was glad to see data showing D91 doesn't over-identify any racial group in terms of IEPs or under-identify any in terms of gifted programs like Challenge. But such a large percentage of kids being sent to the office for disciplinary issues is significant and the problem worrisome.

Cavallo said the district needs to look at this information honestly and be candid about the issue before a solution can be found.

"We need to find out why this is occurring," said Cavallo. "What else do we need to know to understand and solve this?"

Initial delving into the issue began with looking at whether specific teachers were responsible for a large number of the ODRs and when and where they occurred (in the hallway vs. the lunchroom vs. classrooms). This preliminary investigation gave no concrete answers but showed, said Cavallo, that across the board at all D91 schools a disproportionate number of African-American male students were being sent to the office for discipline issues related to the three D's: disruption, disrespect and defiance.

"If we habitually tell kids, 'You're defiant, you're disruptive, you're disrespectful, get out, get out, get out,' we are creating the pipeline. We condition them to believe this is who they are," Cavallo said emphatically.

Going forward, Cavallo said, he will work with James Edler, director of Innovative Instruction, and other staff and faculty, with the help of NEP advisors, to take a very deep look at the issue to understand why it's occurring. Cavallo said they need to ask big questions, like whether bias is in play and why, and whether students and staff are defining the three D's in the same way.

Board President Kyra Tyler, in response to Cavallo's presentation, said maybe students and teachers need to have a better shared understanding of what defiance, for example, means. Teachers and staff can't expect kids to stop being defiant if they don't have a clear understanding of how that is being defined.

Cavallo agreed, saying the problem can't be fixed from the top down. Both student and teacher voices need to be heard, he said, adding that there's no simple solution. 

"It's a complex problem," he said. "Sometimes our systems don't work well for all students."

Cavallo will be retiring at the end of the 2020/2021 school year, and he urged board members to remember the importance of the National Equity Project. "The board needs to be sure this continues when I leave," he said.

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