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District 65's New Discipline Policies
Is the District "Cooking the Books" when it comes to showing wins from the new discipline policy?
FOIA Gras is a free newsletter run by Tom Hayden (FOIA GRAS LLC) that explores various topics in local Evanston Governance, especially around School District 65 (Evanston/Skokie). I publish and share all my data and reports. Subscribing is free, so please subscribe or share!
The most common thing that parents and teachers have reached out about is the current state of discipline (or lack thereof) in District 65. I have a hard time writing about this, because it’s not something I consider myself an expert on. However, the hum has turned into a cacophony, so I feel compelled to write.
I have heard dozens of issues that are some form of;
My student is being bullied daily and the Principal/Vice Principal is doing nothing.
Recess and lunch hour, for my student, has become an absolute free-for-all with kids fighting.
The class I am teaching is out of control and when I send a kid to the office, he comes right back with no discipline.
Instead of disciplining students, they’re going into “Peace Circles” which are ineffective strategies for children with behavior issues.
I’m going to leave the District (parent and teachers have both said this to me!) if something doesn’t change regarding discipline in the immediate future.
On top of that, there have been extraordinary discipline and supervisory issues this year alone:
If you ask any District 65 parent; supervision and discipline is becoming an increasingly concerning problem. For example, I’ve seen emails from administrators to concerned parents, which amount to “the problem is resolved” yet parents tell me nothing has been resolved. My own kid has been impacted, his finger pad was sliced open when him and a fellow student were screwing around with scissors in class. He required stitches at Evanston Hospital. Other students have gotten seriously injured, requiring ER visits. I understand that “kids will be kids”, but the level of supervision seems considerably below my expectations and certainly below the supervision I remember as a student.
If there is one thing that would make me leave the District, it is this issue. If I can’t get a basic guarantee that he is safe in school, what are we doing here?
Before we dig too deep, here are links to the student handbooks from 2017-18 and the current student handbook. I will be attempting to answer “what changed” in the last five years.
Consider the following from 2017-18 Student Handbook, which is a quite strongly worded delegation of authority. As a parent, I can see why this is intimidating. But, at the same time, I want the buck to stop with someone who is ultimately responsible. That person should be the School’s Principal; this document essentially captures that.
Now, what does that section look like today? It is considerably watered down:
It goes on for another 34 pages (twice as long as the 2017-18 policy). The only way I can describe the current discipline policy is as a Kafkaesque maze of checklists, frameworks, classifications, hearings, and alternatives. Read it yourself - start on page 51. You have to be an educational consultant (or a grumpy substack writer) to grok the policy. I find myself wondering if this Student Handbook was even authored with students in mind .. or if the audience is their administrator peers.
Either way, the main gist is here:
7. Impose Exclusionary Discipline Only as a Last Resort
Impose discipline that takes the student out of the classroom and/or school only as a last resort and when available alternatives have been exhausted. Follow the steps in the due process framework when any exclusionary discipline is being considered.
The policy boils down to the following: under no circumstances should you ever remove a disruptive child from the classroom.
To me, this explains a lot of what I’ve been hearing.
KPIs Rule Everything Around Me
Suspensions is one of the District’s key metrics when it comes to establishing equity wins. You can see this on a slide in the Feb 2023 board meeting.
You can read the document;
Suspensions have decreased significantly this year because of increased implementation of restorative practices across the district.
How much have they decreased? A whopping 98.5%! Honestly, it’s surprising to me that they were even able to find a way to suspend two kids, given the complexity of the suspension policy.
Back when I worked in the payments fraud business, we used to joke that if you wanted to stop payments fraud entirely, all you had to do was process zero transactions. Solves the problem, but destroys the business. This feels a lot like that: solve the problem of racial bias in discipline by just not doing discipline! Or worse, pass the problem onto someone else: teachers, parents, and support staff while still not solving the original problem. At the same time they’re functionally punting on discipline, headcount and administrative costs continue to increase.
To track all this, the District uses a system called Branching Minds, a for-profit educational technology startup1. The cost to the District is $70,000 per year.2 It’s the closest thing to a digital version of the old “permanent record" and is used for student discipline tracking and reporting. You can see it used as a source in public reporting the District has put out;
However, in conversations with educators, the system largely seems to be used as a place for administrators to punt on issues regarding student discipline. For instance, more than one educator relayed to me that instead of disciplining a disruptive student, administrators simply told them to hopelessly “record it in Branching Minds” while doing nothing.
If actions are not taken, the result is a system where teachers have no incentive to provide referrals or data. This is reflected in the data above, where the District is projected to have less than half the prior year’s referrals in Branching Minds. Either the District has reduced discipline problems quite significantly or it has discovered a way to pretend the disruptive students do not exist, while claiming wins. The stories I hear from parents and teachers suggests the latter case is more likely.
It’s worth noting that this contract was also not reported to the School Board and the public in accordance with 105 ILCS 5/10-20.44, a subject that I continue to beat the drum on, effectively hiding its existence from the public.