While a new mayor and schools chief are promising to reduce the dropout rate in Chicago schools, a group of CPS students is pointing to the school system’s “harsh discipline policies” as “a major obstacle to graduation.”
Voices of Youth in Chicago Education , a citywide, multi-racial youth-led organization backed by several community groups, is releasing a study of “the true cost of zero tolerance ,” addressing the budgetary and educational costs of punitive approaches to discipline.
Scores of students and their community supporters will gather for the release at 10 a.m. on Thursday, July 14 outside CPS headquarters, 125 S. Clark. The students are seeking a meeting with CPS chief Jean Claude Brizard.
Among those speaking will be Jim Freeman, director of the School-to-Prison Pipeline Project of the Advancement Project , a national civil rights group which reported in 2005 on high levels of in-school arrests at CPS (see Newstips 8-24-05) .
CPS spends tens of millions of dollars each year “on the enforcement of harsh discipline policies that have proven ineffective,” according to a release from VOYCE. Costs will rise next year when the city stops subsidizing the cost of stationing Chicago police in schools.
According to VOYCE, the school district’s Office of Safety and Security is 48 times larger than its Office of Student Support and Engagement.
The group joins other campaigns calling for reform of school discipline. Most recently a coalition of churches in the High Hopes Campaign  has targeted the overreliance on suspensions and expulsions, which it says contributes to the dropout rate (more here ).
The new report grows out of several years of work inside schools to reduce dropouts. Following a 2008 report on “Student-Led Solutions to the Dropout Crisis,” VOYCE members piloted a program to provide social and emotional support to freshmen.
Some 300 VOYCE activists served as peer mentors to about 700 freshmen in eight high schools. They also held retreats and college preparation workshops.
But punitive discipline often presented obstacles, said coordinator Emma Tai. “It doesn’t help get attendance up when you have students being suspended for as much as two weeks for really minor misbehavior,” she said.
One student VOYCE worked with was a former tagger who had turned his attention to school, was improving his grades and was close to graduating on time, she said.
Then police called him to the school office to identify a tag; when he couldn’t, they showed him a year-old tag which he had done and arrested him. He was suspended for two weeks, Tai said.
VOYCE members commented on the incident in a letter of introduction to the new report (it’s been posted at the Connected by 25  blog):
“As students, we feel greatly affected by how CPS handles school discipline. Harsh discipline policies create institutions where we are expected to fail, because they are based on the fear that young people of color are future criminals, not the hope that we will be future leaders.
“Rather than giving us the positive environment we need to actually learn and accomplish our dreams, these policies suspend, arrest, or just kick us out of school for very minor actions, causing us to fall weeks behind in our classes and distrust the adults who are supposed to be looking out for us.
“No one wants safe schools more than we do, but getting arrested for writing your name on a desk doesn’t make us feel safe. It makes us feel like we aren’t even human—like we are animals. Being treated like this in a place where our dreams are supposed to be supported only breaks our spirits down.
“The motto of CPS is to educate, inspire, and transform students. In order for CPS to really educate, inspire, and transform students, they have to learn to listen to us first!”