Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a youth-led alliance for education and racial justice in Chicago and greater Illinois, has been lifting up the stories of young people of color who experience overly harsh and racially biased discipline in schools to advocate for more equitable and safer schools for everyone.
Zero tolerance policies that mandate suspension or expulsion for certain offenses emerged in the 1980s, largely in response to rising juvenile arrest rates. The passage of the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994 required states that wanted access to federal education funding to pass laws mandating yearlong suspensions for students who brought firearms to school. While the original intent of zero-tolerance policies was to make schools safer with a tough-on-crime approach to major offenses, over time, minor violations of school codes of conduct became grounds for suspension or expulsion. One young person from VOYCE reported getting suspended for skipping one class—an extreme disciplinary response that resulted in a disruption of the student’s learning.
Zero-tolerance policies have not only failed to make schools safer but also encouraged punishment practices that prevent youth—especially youth of color—from succeeding at school and being prepared to enter the workforce.
These practices are not simply ineffective; they have harmful repercussions. School suspensions can disrupt young people’s lives and increase the likelihood that they will be arrested. Even more troubling, the increased likelihood of arrest is highest among youth who do not have significant criminal histories. And youth who do have prior criminal histories are more likely to recidivate while suspended from school. This phenomenon of schoolchildren being channeled into the criminal justice system has been referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. The suspension of young people—like the member of VOYCE who was suspended for skipping a single class—increases their likelihood of arrest or recidivism, when they should be the classroom.
Recognizing that school suspensions should be the last resort rather than the first response, VOYCE lifted up city- and state-wide data on suspensions, expulsions, and youth arrests to successfully advocate for and pass state legislation mandating the implementation of more fair and effective disciplinary practices instead of zero-tolerance.
Uncovering racial inequities in school discipline
To reach legislators, VOYCE advocates needed compelling data to communicate the urgency of the harmful outcomes and disparate impact of these punishment practices in their communities. They launched the Campaign for Common Sense Discipline, and analyzing data disaggregated by race and ethnicity was a critical first step of their work.
The coalition analyzed 2012-13 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Chicago Police Department data and found alarming disparities in suspensions and expulsions and widespread criminalization of students of color. Black students were more than 30 times more likely to be expelled and had six-and-a-half times more suspensions than their White peers. Students of color were also far more likely to be criminalized: 96 percent of all arrests were of Black and Latino students.
VOYCE also analyzed U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights data and Illinois State Board of Education data and found that state-wide there were over 272,000 out-of-school suspensions of Illinois students, more than 2,400 expulsions, and more than 10,000 arrests in just one school year. About 13 percent of all students enrolled in Illinois public schools had been suspended, but VOYCE knew that actual suspension rates were much higher because charter schools are not required to report suspension numbers.
VOYCE’s analysis also found that suspensions, expulsions, and arrests added up to a significant loss of time in the classroom for Illinois students: more than one million instructional days per year. This was the data point that really captured the attention of decision-makers, according to Jose Sanchez of VOYCE, because it showed how exclusionary discipline was disrupting student learning and creating an enormous barrier to student success.
Data underpins policy wins for safer and more equitable schools in Illinois
Using data and organized public action to get the attention of local and state decision makers, VOYCE was able to advocate for and successfully pass two bills that will curb the devastating impacts of these discriminatory policies and make public schools safer and more inclusive for all Illinois students.
SB 100 is the most comprehensive attempt by any state to address the causes and dire consequences of the school-to-prison pipeline, and youth advocates from VOYCE played a key role in securing its passage. VOYCE youth drafted a version of the bill in 2012 and sent youth representatives to all legislative hearings about the bill. SB100 passed on May 20, 2015, with broad bipartisan support. It mandates that suspensions and expulsions become the last resort in school discipline, not the first response. The bill also works to make schools more equitable by holding public and charter schools to the same disciplinary standards and by providing academic and behavioral support to struggling students. Instead of excluding students by expelling or suspending them, SB 100 is working to put students back on the road to graduation and a future in the workforce.
Credit: VOYCE Coalition.
With these two victories under their belt, the advocates of VOYCE are currently focusing on developing guidelines for the implementation of SB100. They want to ensure that the resources being shifted away from zero tolerance policies are shifted toward practices that make schools more equitable and safe. Their recommendations will be released in Spring 2016.
The VOYCE coalition’s policy wins exemplify the power of equity data—in the hands of active, engaged communities—to drive positive change in public school systems. The majority of public school students in the United States are now students of color, and their success is critical to the success of their communities and the economy as a whole. Reforming the overly harsh disciplinary policies that have adversely affected students of color for 25 years is a critical step toward ensuring all children can succeed at school and build a strong 21st century workforce. If America’s schools are to open doors of opportunity for everyone, they must have zero tolerance for discriminatory practices.