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Schools try to fix unfair student discipline policies during a "mental health crisis"

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Educators have been speaking out about “extreme” student behavior in the classroom. It’s coming as schools like Rockford say they need to completely overhaul how students are disciplined.

If you go to your local school board meeting, chances are you’ll hear students and teachers talk about how these issues need to change right now.

DeKalb teacher Amanda Angelo detailed a laundry list of things she’s seen in her classes this year.

“Having to teach over screaming children that can last for hours. Students taking off clothes during an escalation so they are completely naked,” she said. “A student slapping their teacher across the face, students throwing tables and desks across the classroom, destruction of school property.”

Angelo makes it clear that these issues have been around since long before COVID-19 upended education. But Rachel Medearis, a Rockford middle school teacher, says, since then, it’s gotten much worse

“I'm telling you right now, from my experiences, we have a mental health crisis in our schools,” said Medearis. “These children are acting out in ways that we have never seen. There is violence, there is just simply behavior that we don't normally see. We can't do enough to help them.”

Schools with limited support staff are wrestling with how to address behavior issues with a focus on mental health and equity.

Racial equity is something Rockford junior Keniya Parks-Collin says is completely missing from how teachers and administrators discipline what they see as poor behavior.

“People of color’s anger shouldn't be taken and treated as a threat. Anger is a form of expression that is always allowed and welcome until it's coming from a person of color,” she said.

Parks-Collin also highlighted the district’s sky-high suspension and expulsion rates.

“Being taken away from your learning environment doesn't help students understand their behavior needs to be corrected nor it doesn't show them how to correct their behaviors," said Parks-Collin. "It just shows them that the school doesn't care about their education, so why should they?”

Jennifer Lawrence just finished her first year as executive director of student services at Rockford Public Schools. She knows Rockford’s discipline policies, which often lead to suspensions, haven’t supported their students.

In 2020, Kennedy Middle School in Rockford handed out more out-of-school suspensions than any middle school in Illinois. Auburn High School was in the Top 3 for in-school suspensions and 64% of those students were Black.

Lawrence says it starts with the district overhauling its student code of conduct.

“We needed to work with students to improve behavior before exclusion,” said Lawrence. “We needed to replace our over-reliance on suspensions and we need to identify additional supports for students.”

RPS recently held three community meetings to get feedback on what they need to fix. Overwhelmingly, they heard about the need to reserve exclusionary discipline as the last resort.

Among other changes, the district is reducing the total number of days students can be suspended. In the current system, if a student gets in a fight, they could be gone for over 10 days, but now the maximum is three days total.

Lawrence says community feedback has already shifted how some of the district’s discipline rules are laid out.

“Being a little bit more clear on the about what interventions are like," she said. "Making sure that we are putting really at the front of all of this, why we're doing it and why it's good for kids.”

But, a new student code of conduct is just one piece. What happens next? How will they make sure the rules are implemented equitably, especially when they know so many students and community members have lost their trust?

Dr. Tiffany Brunson is Rockford’s chief diversity, equity & inclusion officer. She says it starts with action by the administration.

“Training and support for our teachers and staff, because they're the ones who are with the students every single day,” said Brunson. “So equipping them with more tools, how to do interventions, how to connect with students on a different level. That's where the real hard work comes, that's where we're really gonna be focusing a lot of our time.”

The district’s goals also include “disrupting the predictability of academic outcomes based on zip code.” To make a change that big, she says they’ll also have to prioritize equity in other areas too, like restorative justice and diverse hiring practices.

Brunson says the work will be ongoing and there will be a committee including community members that meets regularly to discuss trends with discipline and behavior.

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.