The following interview aired Aug. 20, and provides background and context for our series, Black & White.
I’m Sean Crawford, I’m the News Director here at WUIS, and our Education Desk reporter, Dusty Rhodes, has spent much of her time this summer researching racial disparity in school discipline. Starting next week, we’ll be airing a series of reports -- it begins on Monday. I asked Dusty to give us a preview of what we’ll hear.
So what got you interested in this topic?
DR: Well, three things. First of all, Illinois passed a law this year that kind of limits how schools can expel and suspend kids. And the term used is exclusionary discipline, because it excludes kids from the learning environment. And so the new law was pushed by a group of kids from Chicago. They had experts, too, though, and the experts presented a lot of data about how harmful exclusionary discipline can be, and how that makes it a lot more likely that a kid will drop out of school and end up in the justice system. So, the second thing is that: covering education, you hear a lot about the “achievement gap.” That’s a term we use to talk about how black kids in general score far below white kids on standardized tests. There’s a lot of energy and effort circulating around how to address that, because there are various funding streams tied to closing that gap. But to me, those two things are connected, because it’s hard to help a kid learn if he’s been suspended from school. So there’s a lot less energy focused on the discipline disparity.
You said three things, so what’s number 3?
DR: Oh, well, that’s my kid. I have a 14-year-old son, who is black. And we moved here in late September, of last year, and within the first six days of school, he got escorted out of class twice. And, you know, he’s a good kid. He’d never had behavior problems before, and the experience just made him dread going to school. And one morning, we pulled up to the drop-off circle, he got out of the car and he just started walking back down the school driveway, like that’s how bad he didn’t want to go. And luckily, there was a teacher that he liked out directing traffic, and that teacher turned him around and got him to go into the building. But that’s when I realized there was something a little different about discipline in Springfield.
So you’ve investigated that. Is it actually different or a tougher level of enforcement?
Well, Springfield actually uses a different program at the middle school level. A lot of schools all over the country use a system called PBIS -- that stands for Positive Behavior Intervention and Support. It’s supported by university researchers and the Department of Education. And Springfield uses it, but in the middle schools now, and in a couple of elementary schools, we have a program called BIST. And that stands for Behavior Intervention Support Team. So as a mom just trying to help my son adjust to his new school, I started researching BIST. Danville and Peoria have recently adopted it too. It was developed in Kansas City at a residential treatment facility for teens. So it’s a different approach from PBIS. We still use PBIS in elementary schools here and high schools.
So looking at this, what did you discover? Well, one thing I found out is it’s not just my kid. I filed some Freedom of Information requests, I spent a lot of time crunching numbers, interviewing lots of people. And it turns out that Springfield has a significant level of racial disparity in discipline at its four largest middle schools and all three high schools. And when I looked at the BIST data, the disparity is even greater. But you know, along the way, I heard about some great teachers and administrators who really go the extra mile for kids, and I’m planning to do some of those stories down the road.