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'It really doesn't do anything to repair the harm': How Rockford schools wield a lesser-known form of exclusionary discipline

This spring, Rockford Public Schools approved a new student code of conduct. RPS administrators admit that the current system is overly punitive. They say they want to decrease discipline like suspensions and expulsions that exclude students from their school.

Rockford schools are consistently in the Top-5in Illinois for in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. In two of the last three school years, a Rockford school led the state in expulsions. One of those was Kennedy Middle School.

But RPS also often uses a different, less-known form of exclusion called “expulsion-in-abeyance” or an EIA. That’s where the district recommends an expulsion after an incident, butthe student signs an agreement that sends them to an “adaptive learning site” for anywhere from a few months to two years. After that, the student may come back to their home school and get the expulsion removed from their record.

Jennifer Lawrence is RPS’ director of student services. She agrees that data on EIAs can be hard to find.

“The state doesn't count them. So, when you look at state data for in-school and out-of-school suspensions and expulsions, EIAs don't fall in that category,” she said. “For example, we've had 83 expulsions in one year, 62 in another -- and we're looking at many more EIAs than that.”

Lawrence estimates that the district hands out around 250 discipline-related expulsions in abeyance per year.

While it doesn’t count all EIAs, there is a state metric for “removals to alternative settings in lieu of another disciplinary action.” Last year, the top-5 schools in that category were all RPS.

Some parents, like Simone Ariri, say the district sends kids away from their school, their friends and teachers, too much. It happened to her 14-year-old daughter earlier this year. Simone’s daughter smoked marijuana on the edge of school grounds and had an adverse reaction and staff needed to call an ambulance. Ariri says she had no other major disciplinary incidents on her record before then, but, nevertheless, Guilford High School pursued an expulsion in abeyance.

School districts don’t have to expel students for incidents involving drugs. Morgan Gallagher is RPS’ chief of schools. He says it’s pretty common in this district.

“A great many of our students that get pulled out of their home schools on an EIA, it would be for having a vape on them," he said. "Pushing that kid out of school, who is often a student on track and doing well in school, to kick them out -- we're not owning their education anymore, and outsourcing it. It really doesn't do anything to repair the harm that was done.”

Peter Medlin
2019-2020 Illinois school expulsion data

Illinois school disciplinelaws and regulations state that removals to alternative schools should be used “only if other appropriate and available behavioral and disciplinary interventions have been exhausted” and if the students’ presence poses a safety threat or would disrupt the operation of the school.

Ariri says her daughter’s incident doesn’t come close to that standard nor did the district provide any of those interventions before jumping to exclusion.

“They're required to do various corrective strategies, various reparative strategies -- and they don't," she said. "Now what they do is on the actual referral, they have a section for corrective strategy. All this stuff they're supposed to do, they listed all for the same day."

When Ariri questioned administrators, something weird happened. She says the school added more incidents to her daughter’s file.

“Like when my daughter was in elementary school where she was littering on the bus and didn't keep the aisle clear or something," she said. "Stuff that I was never notified about."

2020-21 Illinois school "removals to alternative settings in lieu of another disciplinary action."
Peter Medlin
2020-21 Illinois school "removals to alternative settings in lieu of another disciplinary action."

Eventually, her daughter was given an EIA agreement and sent to Roosevelt Community Education Center -- which is one of three “adaptive learning sites” RPS can send students to, also including Summit Academy and the Innovative Learning Center.

After everything, Ariri says her daughter has no interest in returning to Guilford, but, as of now, she'll be forced to go back in the fall. Ariri says hopefully they'll convince administrators that her daughter enjoys Roosevelt's environment, flexibility and chance to graduate early.

Gallagher at RPS says that Roosevelt is the only adaptive learning site that is part of the school district. He says they’re working on sending more students there and fewer to the other sites.

“At Roosevelt, they are more successful in attendance, more successful in credit attainment, more successful in not having behavior incidents than when we outsource them.”

He also says RPS is progressive when it comes to EIAs and expulsions because they pay for alternative education when legally they don’t have to.

Even though the district has a new student code of conduct, Ariri says she’s not confident it’ll make a difference. She’d like to see the hearing and appeals process for EIAs made more clear for parents trying to advocate for their kids. She says the only way things will change is if administrators are held accountable.

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