Let’s start with Carlil Pittman, age 22. Pittman is part of VOYCE, an acronym that stands for Voices of Chicago Youth in Education. Their goal is to stop schools from using harsh discipline, and — let’s just get this out of the way — you could say they’re experts on the subject.
“I had cut a class, and because I cut a class, and they caught me cutting class... they dropped me out of school,” Pittman says. “I was in the lunchroom. I didn’t really feel like dealing with sitting in the classroom. I had just found out that my girlfriend was pregnant, so I went and I sat in the lunchroom. And the security [guard] saw me, and he took me to the disciplinary office. And when I got there, some lady in there -- I don’t know who she was -- she was like, ‘Let me see his grades…. okay, let’s drop him.’ ”
Pittman says it took him months to find another school that would admit him. He ended up at Gage Park High School, where he added night classes, Saturdays and summer school in order to graduate on time. During his senior year, he joined VOYCE. He’s been working to change school discipline policies ever since.
This spring, the group took a big step toward that goal by getting their legislation — Senate Bill 100 — through both chambers with bipartisan support. The measure would make out-of-school suspensions and expulsions last resorts, to be used only if a student’s continuing presence on campus poses a threat to school safety or a disruption to learning.
“What the bill really does is, it encourages folks to just look at other ways. If there are other ways available, then look at those first,” says Quentin Anderson. He's the campaign director for VOYCE — a kid who went to the principal’s office 54 times in 8th grade, but recently graduated from law school. Anderson says this legislation reflects a growing national awareness of the link between harsh discipline in schools and harsh sentences in the criminal justice system.
“The feds have recommended that you do away with zero tolerance,” he says. "It’s coupled with the mandatory minimums. It’s sort of seen as something that lacks compassion and it’s sort of — a kid does X so we give him Y consequence, without any contemplation of the context of the circumstances.”
In Chicago, some charter schools charge students monetary fees for misbehavior.
“One of our young people, she went to school with a pack of gum. It was a charter school, and you’re not allowed to chew gum,” says Sarah Johnson, a youth leader for VOYCE. "And so, you know, she went through the metal detectors, and they found a pack of gum in her bag. And she was fined a dollar a piece of gum that she had.”
A pack of gum can have 18 pieces. That’s a fairly hefty fine.
“It’s a ridiculous thing, in the first place. She wasn’t chewing it; it was just in her bag,” Johnson says.
The VOYCE bill would apply to public schools and charter schools, banning monetary fees and zero-tolerance policies. Anderson realizes that it’s asking schools to try harder.
“If you can just slot people into certain consequences for certain actions, you don’t have to think about what actually happened, because that takes time,” he says. "And that’s really what our bill tries to do. It says that time that seems so inconvenient -- that’s really important.”
Pittman says that on that day he got caught hanging out in the lunchroom, no one asked why he wasn’t in class.
DR: “I’m not sure I should ask you this question. Are you a father now?”
DR: “How old is your baby?”
Pittman: “My son is five years old.”
DR: “So this is the son you were sitting in the cafeteria about?”
DR: “Wow. So he will be starting school?”
Pittman: “Yeah. He’s in preschool now. He just got enrolled for kindergarten for September....And I feel really confident sending my son to school, knowing that I played a part in his future education.”
The bill should be sent to Governor Rauner soon. If he signs it, it would take effect in September 2016.