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OPRF says so long to zero tolerance

'Punitive' conduct code replaced with more 'restorative' plan

July 8th, 2020 12:32 PM

A chart outlining District 200's new Behavior Response Grid, which provides "staff and administrators with guidance in making decisions about how to respond to student behavior," according to administrators. | Courtesy District 200

By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

There will be major changes in store for students and adults whenever they return to the classrooms and hallways of Oak Park and River Forest High School — particularly on how students are disciplined. But despite the District 200 administration's overhauls, school board members are still not wholly convinced they will be enough to change OPRF's longstanding culture of racism and inequity.

The most significant change involves the Student Code of Conduct. Starting this fall, it will have a new name — the Behavior Education Plan. The D200 school board approved the new plan at a special meeting on June 16.

Some board members, while appreciative of the changes, expressed some reservations about the new Behavior Education Plan, particularly the speed at which it was being put in place and whether or not the changes sufficiently addressed the biggest impediment to radically changing OPRF's racial climate — the behaviors of the adults in the building. 

Board member Ralph Martire complained at the June 16 meeting that the new plan "felt a little rushed," although he said he appreciates "administrative constraints," such as a looming print deadline and some lead time required to get students abreast of the new changes that made a vote that night necessary.

Veteran board member Jackie Moore, who has witnessed multiple disciplinary tweaks and overhauls come and go during her time on the board, said she was concerned that the district's new racial equity policy was not reflected in the new plan.

LeVar Ammons, the district's racial equity director, responded that his office's impact on the new plan is evident in the plan's fine print, such as the procedures that will govern how the plan is carried out on a day-to-day level.

The plan places much greater emphasis on restorative practices and positive teacher interventions than consequences and punishment, said D200 administrators at a June 16 Committee of the Whole meeting that preceded that night's special meeting. 

During a board presentation of the new plan at the meeting, Lynda Parker, D200's director of student services, said the Behavior Education Plan marks a "shift in mindset away from our old practices and thoughts about what disciplinary actions look like."

In other words, the zero-tolerance, three-strikes-and-you're-out culture at OPRF, which was once dominant at many schools around the country for years, is effectively and officially a thing of the past — at least on paper.

The new Behavior Education Plan features five different levels of "possible responses to student behavior," with each behavior "assigned to one or more of these Response Levels," according to a document on the plan drafted by Parker and other D200 officials. The old code of conduct had only three levels, Parker said.

Level one behaviors include those that mostly take place in the classroom and are considered "disruptive or uncooperative" — from cheating and leaving class without permission to forgery and violating the OPRF dress code.

Parker said classroom teachers will be expected to "leverage the relationships and the culture in the classroom" to handle these kind of low-level disturbances, as opposed to leaning on deans to address them by meting out disciplinary transactions. Parker added that the plan is designed to ensure that the relationship between teachers and students is "always the first place we start to redirect" student behavior. 

Levels 2-5 all involve varying ranges of administrative interventions and restorative responses. Level 2 behaviors, which may include everything from possessing a weapon or look-alike gun to gang activity and inappropriate, non-sexual physical contact, would entail up to one day of in-school suspension, which the new Behavior Education Plan now refers to as "in-school reflection." 

Unlike the old code's in-school suspensions, the new in-school reflection centers will offer students "an opportunity to not only reflect but have restorative measures put in place so they can understand the behaviors that put them into the reflection center [and] we're not keeping students specifically away from the classroom. 

"So if there's a need for a student to complete a project or go in for a presentation they would have otherwise missed by being in the in-school reflection center, they'll be able to [go in there and get the grade] in addition to having work sent down to them by teachers, so the supervisors in that space can distribute that work while maintaining contact with teachers and parents." 

Parker said the new in-school reflection period is a way of "making sure we restore the student rather than outright punish them." 

Level 3 responses may include up to three days of in-school reflection. Level 4 responses may include up to three days of out-of-school suspensions while level 5 responses may include four or more days of out-of-school suspensions and/or recommended expulsion. 

Some behaviors, such as possessing "a weapon, other than a firearm or other gun, or look-alike gun" allow teachers and administrators some discretion, since they fall in every response level except for level 1 in the Behavior Education Plan. 

Parker said students nonetheless "have to progress through the different levels" before reaching a higher level. They "don't start at 4 if there's a level 2" response for a specific behavior, she said. 

For instance, behaviors involving alcohol, drugs and tobacco use immediately start at level 2 and progress to level 5 responses.

Other behaviors, such as possessing "a firearm, as defined by federal and state law (e.g., handgun, rifle, shotgun, starter pistol, etc.)" jump students immediately to a level 5 response. Still, actions that merit that kind of leap are few and far between, administrators said. 

Even in the most severe situations, such as where a student has demonstrated repeated substance abuse or brought a firearm to school, severe consequences like expulsion will be rare occurrences, administrators said. 

"We're saying, as a school, that with very few exceptions we are not going to be recommending expulsion or using the most severe exclusionary discipline even for kids who repeat these behaviors," said Janel Bishop, the lead dean at OPRF who helped Parker and Associate Superintendent Greg Johnson on the new plan. "That is a change from our practice of previous years." 

Bishop also said that even in categories involving weapons, "we still, as a school, are not jumping to a level 5, when in previous years, the mere possessions of a certain item came with a multi-day suspension and/or the recommendation for expulsion. We have now isolated those responses to very specific instances and other ones that do involve weapons will be reacted to with a less punitive response than in the past." 

Bishop added that certain language that stood out in the old code of conduct as too punitive has been scrapped. For instance, "acts of defiance" are not mentioned anywhere in the Behavior Education Plan.

Parker and Bishop said Black students were significantly overrepresented in that data category, even though it's not clear that Black students commit more "acts of defiance" than their white colleagues.

"We have tried to remove some of the more police-like language," Bishop said, adding that terms like "battery," "mob action," "gross misconduct" and "social probation" have also been axed from the new plan. 

Parker added that the administration's response to tardies, one of the main student behaviors that in the past led to disciplinary actions like in-school suspensions, particularly for Black students, will "no longer result in more loss of class time." 

Martire, who is a member of the district's Culture, Climate and Behavior Committee, said he believes the new plan addresses complaints he's heard from students and parents about the "lack of consistency in the application of our disciplinary rules."

The sharpest criticism of the new plan came from board member Gina Harris, who, along with Moore and Martire, also sits on the Culture, Climate and Behavior Committee.

Harris, who does restorative justice work as a climate and culture coach in District 97, said last month that while she can appreciate how different the new plan looks from "what I've seen before and how different it looks from when my daughter was graduated from there two years ago," she nonetheless had reservations about how the new plan's intentions will translate into the real world. 

"The disproportionate data on race, specifically for Black students, shows them being targeted more based on defiance, disruption and disrespect, but we're still asking the very same teachers and people who are creating that data to make a big shift in what they're doing," Harris said. 

"What we know is that adult practices shift student behavior — it's not the other way around. … Based on what this behavior plan is, I'm not sure we're actually going to see any differences in that data until the adult practices are addressed," she said. "I'm not necessarily seeing that in the same way I would hope to see it."

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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