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One of Illinois' largest school districts changed its code of conduct to decrease exclusionary discipline. Has it worked?

A white poster board with the student code of conduct written in bullet points. Multi-colored sticky notes are attached with suggestions from community members on how to make the code better.
RPS student code of conduct revisions at a 2022 community meeting

Peaceful, background-of-a-yoga-class type music flows out of speakers into the hectic hallways of Auburn High School in Rockford. It plays every day during the five-minute passing periods when students race to their locker between classes.

Does it really help students calm their mind before a stressful test? Does it smooth over disagreements in the hallway? It’s hard to say. But Jenny Keffer says it’s emblematic of a much larger shift over the past year at Auburn and Rockford Public Schools as a whole. Keffer is the principal at Auburn.

“Last year, we did have high discipline coming back from COVID," she said. "We were the outliers for all high schools [in Rockford].”

The district has had sky-high suspension and expulsion rates. Last year, Auburn ranked near the top of the state in total out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. No school in Illinois handed in-school suspensions to more students than Auburn.

Jennifer Lawrence knew the district was overly-reliant on exclusionwhen she started in her role two years ago. She’s the executive director of student services at Rockford Public Schools. That’s why she helped lead an effort to re-write the student code of conductlast year.

They lowered the number of days students can be suspended. She said that last year, a fight could have kicked you out of school for 10 days. Now, the max is three. And they changed the code’s format to make it easier to understand for parents and students.

“We changed the format, the layout, and the number of suspension days," said Lawrence, "but the real meat of it, we really didn't change."

So, have discipline numbers changed this year with new code?

So far, yeah. Last year, RPS suspended students from school 7,000 times. Halfway through this year, it was 2,200. If that pace holds through the rest of the school year, that would be nearly a 40% decline. The expulsion rate is far lower than in 2022 as well.

Illinois data showing the school districts with the most total suspensions last year & their suspension rate relative to the number of the students in the district.
Illinois data showing the school districts with the most total suspensions last year & their suspension rate relative to the number of the students in the district.

Lawrence says it makes sense that numbers would be lower simply because they decreased the number of days you could be suspended. But has there been a real impact on student behavior? She says yes.

“We're seeing a dramatic shift,” she said. “The number of students that are committing offenses has plummeted.”

Lawrence says half as many students are displaying behavior that could get them in trouble. But how did that happen if the code of conduct didn’t change that much?

The district says it’s because the biggest shift over the past year has been prioritizing intervention services: getting students' support before a situation escalates to discipline. And if there is an incident, offering assistance instead of just discipline.

Jenny Keffer says that’s true for her at Auburn.

“I added additional staff who would be available for students to provide interventions," she said, "knowing that the code was no longer going to be just consequential, but also consequences paired with interventions."

They say there are still consequences. It’s just that there are interventions first, before exclusion. But what are interventions? What does that mean?

It could be meetings with a counselor, intervention groups where they have community-building circles, work days, lessons and games. The district has a new partnership with Rosecrance-- a mental health and substance use treatment center. And Keffer says every freshman is in daily intervention to help them stay on track and foster a sense of belonging in their new building.

“Having that daily check-in with an adult, who's here just for them, has made a significant difference,” said Keffer. “Now, our discipline is in line with the other high schools for the first time ever.”

That’s not to say behavior issues have disappeared. Some teachers say extreme behaviors are still more common now than pre-pandemic -- and they can be really hard to handle.

State data showing schools with most in-school suspensions last year. Five of the Top-7 are Rockford schools.
State data showing schools with most in-school suspensions last year. Five of the Top-7 are Rockford schools.

At RPS, they’ve invested in parent liaisons who work with a caseload of students who might need extra support academically or social-emotionally. Maybe they had behavior, discipline or attendance issues the previous year.

Natasha Harris is an MTSS Coordinator at Auburn who helps lead the parent liaisons. MTSS stands for multi-tiered system of support. Harris spent the last few years as a liaison herself.

She says liaisons start the school year three weeks early to identify which students need extra help. Auburn has seven parent liaisons and they each have 15-20 kids on their caseload. Then comes the parent part of the parent liaison. Harris says, in August, they go to the student’s home to meet their family.

“The initial visit," said Harris, "is to say, ‘Hey, I'm here, I want to partner with you. I'm here so that your student has a successful school year.’”

They can also connect families with resources like transportation, clothing or food. Harris is from Rockford and says it helps when you’re building trust with a student and their family.

“To be in a position to help families meet their basic needs is so empowering," she said. "If we can get those basic needs met, then that student can perform. They don't have to worry about food, shelter, clothing or those things while they're at school. If we can do more of that and provide more resources to our families, we’ll have more productive students.”

In school, liaisons lead intervention groups and help keep track of their students’ grades and behavior. Harris also spends a lot of time greeting students in the hallway, saying "hello" when they walk in in the morning and providing a safe place for her kids.

On her office door, there’s a white board that reads “Make good choices.”

But, she says, once she builds up those relationships, the less she has to remind her kids to do that -- and the less she has to seek them out if something starts to go wrong.

“When they even feel themselves starting [to slip], they'll come find you,” said Harris.

Auburn principal Jenny Keffer says liaisons and interventions are making a difference academically too.

“Our grades are up. In semester one, for the first time ever, we have the highest freshmen on-trackrate for the entire district,” she said. “All of these freshmen that attend intervention have time and space to look at their grades and see their missing assignments. It’s a huge win.”

So, Keffer says, increased interventions and student support won’t just reduce exclusionary discipline -- she’s confident it’ll soon result in higher graduation rates too.

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