Illinois Governor Signs Sweeping School Discipline Reform

Progressive new law wins backing from Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

WASHINGTON - Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) on Monday signed into law a sweeping reform of the state's school discipline policies, putting Illinois at the forefront of the nationwide push to make school discipline less exclusionary and more effective.

Senate Bill 100 eliminates automatic "zero tolerance" suspensions and expulsions, and requires that schools exhaust all other means of intervention before expelling students or suspending them for more than three days. The bill also prohibits fines and fees for misbehavior, and requires schools to communicate with parents about why certain disciplinary measures are being used.

Under the new law, which goes into effect in September of 2016, students returning from suspension will be allowed to make up the school work they missed, and students suspended for more than four days will be offered access to support services, like academic counseling and mental health professionals.

"For too long, harsh school discipline practices have contributed to the under-education and over-criminalization of young people, and especially youth of color," Dalia Mena, an 18-year-old member of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education, a group that lobbied on behalf of the bill's passage, said in a statement. "Illinois now provides more tools for schools to create environments where all students are valued and supported in their learning."

According to the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, Illinois has one of the widest disparities in the nation between suspended black students and their white classmates. During the 2012-13 school year, Chicago Public Schools issued suspensions for 32 of every 100 black students, compared to just five of every 100 white students.

Senate Bill 100 was sponsored by Illinois state Sen. Kimberly Lightford and state Rep. Will Davis. It passed the Illinois Legislature with bipartisan support this spring.

"The students who are being tossed out of the school environment are the very students who should be kept within school boundaries at all costs," Lightford said in April. "We need to keep young people in school learning how to succeed and off of the street corner learning how to fail."

As the nation engages in a broader conversation about criminal justice reform, school discipline policies are emerging as a key factor that can alter a young person's course in life. Numerous studies in recent years have shown that students who are suspended from school, or referred to the juvenile justice system for minor offenses, are significantly more likely to drop out before graduating from high school.

On Tuesday, the Center for American Progress released a new report on truancy, which included the formal recommendation that schools "make punitive consequences, such as ticketing, fines, or removal from the classroom, a last resort."

In Texas, a new law will go into effect on Sept. 1 that decriminalizes truancy for students, and requires schools to delve deeper than ever before into the reasons that students are missing school, rather than simply punishing absenteeism.

Schools in Illinois will have the next year to experiment with new ways to implement Senate Bill 100, which will apply equally to public schools and charter schools.

"We expect that schools will begin implementing alternative discipline approaches this coming school year that emphasize student-centered social-emotional supports and limit the loss of instructional time when discipline issues arise," said Amina Henderson, a youth leader from Southwest Organizing Project in Chicago, in a statement Tuesday.

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