May 14th, 2019 3:12 PM
Teachers at Oak Park District 97 middle schools have reached a troubling consensus about Julian and Brooks — they're increasingly unsafe because of the bad behavior of some students, which often goes unchecked.
The teachers' concerns come as the district grapples with the implications of SB 100 — the state law, effective since 2016, that requires school districts to exhaust all of their behavioral interventions before suspending students, among other aspects of the legislation — and as D97 administrators attempt to aggressively confront the district's history of stark racial inequities in academic performance and disciplinary outcomes.
According to the results of a fall 2018 survey administered by the Oak Park Teachers Association and obtained by Wednesday Journal, nearly 90 percent of middle school teacher who responded are either "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with the behavior and discipline of the students they teach. Response rates were 69 percent at Brooks and 92 percent Julian.
Fully two-thirds of respondents at both middle schools — 64 percent at Brooks and 73 percent at Julian — are either "dissatisfied" or "very dissatisfied" with the amount of safety and security in the schools.
The feedback that teachers provided in the surveys depict a "culture of lawlessness" and "no consequences" at the middle schools, with frustration among staffers at "an all-time high."
"Administrators have normalized and encouraged the current level of disrespect and aggression from students toward teachers by refusing to support teachers [and] often undermine teachers in front of the students," one teacher wrote, adding that it is a "weekly occurrence to be sworn at by students."
Other teachers at both schools complained of a need for more hallway monitors to curb the widespread habit of students roaming the building unsupervised. In addition, relatively minor transgressions, such as wearing hoodies and "using loud, sexually abusive language" often go unchecked.
The teachers at the middle schools wrote that they've seen an increase in major fights and the general level of disrespect among students.
"The culture at Julian is toxic," wrote one teacher at the school.
"Overall, I think our standards are low and students are sinking to that," wrote another Julian teacher. "The kids at the top are bored, the kids near the bottom who are well-behaved are ignored and the kids who are at-risk learn that they can get away with a lot."
In an email statement, Chris Jasculca, D97's senior director of policy, planning and communication, explained that "students are still receiving consequences for actions that violate our policies and do not align with the efforts we are undertaking across the district to promote equity, inclusion and a stronger sense of belonging."
Jasculca said that district administrators met with OPTA leaders from Brooks and Julian on May 13 to talk about the survey and other issues at the middle school. OPTA had provided survey results to the district several weeks ago.
According to the district's data, there were more out-of-school and in-school suspensions handed out at Julian than at Brooks. During the 2018-19 school year, 13 students were given a total of 21 out-of-school suspensions, compared to three students who were given three out-of-school suspensions at Brooks.
Seven of those Julian students were black while three were Hispanic. At Brooks, two of those students were black while one was Hispanic.
At Julian, 25 students were given 34 in-school suspensions while 15 students were given 17 in-school suspensions at Brooks this school year. Seventeen of those Julian students were black while four were Hispanic. At Brooks, 11 of those students were black while one was Hispanic.
"What this data does not show is all of the other steps we take and supports we have in place beyond suspension and expulsion to address behavior and discipline issues in our schools," Jasculca said, before referencing a variety of social and emotional supports that are available for students, including culture and climate teams at the middle schools designed to improve the student experience.
"We have also been working with students, staff and families to completely revamp our Effective Student Behavior Handbook in an effort to help shift the way we think about behavior," Jasculca said.
A different take
Cynthia Brito, a co-chair of the Diversity Council at Julian and the parent coordinator of the school's Social Justice Club, has a different interpretation of the cultural tensions at the middle schools.
Brito said that faculty have notified her about instances in which members of her club have been reported for misbehavior.
"For example, they said one of the students said, 'I hate white people' in the hallway and he's a member of the club," Brito said. "In the last two to three weeks, I definitely think the students have been more energetic, but I don't think they've been disruptive. What they've done this year is amazing."
The Social Justice Club was at the forefront of a February walkout to protest racial injustice and police violence that was organized by one of the club's mentors, Oak Park and River Forest High School sophomore Antoine Ford.
The walkout, which started at OPRF and involved Julian students, was criticized by some community members and high school administrators for what they said was its apparent disorganization and indiscipline. Ford and some of his peers, however, said that the action that they organized was treated with a contempt by the same adults that supported similar demonstrations by white students.
The Social Justice Club was also instrumental in getting the district to remove murals at Julian and Brooks that only depict white students, prompting upset from some community members and staffers who said that the district overreached by removing the historically significant artwork, which dates to the Depression-era. Brito said that she connects part of the teachers' frustration with some of these student- and parent-led efforts to confront the district's culture of racism, which, she added, has for too long translated into comfort for most of the whites in the district while black and brown students are left to fend for themselves in a hostile environment.
"To me, what is actually disruptive is the fact that these students aren't getting a quality education, because they feel there's so much racism from the teachers and the whole structure," she said. "It's all about white comfort. It's disruptive because things aren't running the way they usually do, which is in a racist way."
Brito cited a list of roughly a dozen "issues and suggested changes" that the Social Justice Club presented to building administrators. They included culturally responsive changes to a curriculum that glosses over most black and Latinx history, more effective professional development for teachers who often discipline students discriminately.
"Black students are targeted for wearing durags, hoodies and bonnets," the club members noted. "The dress code is not enforced the same for white students"
They added that the black and brown students are often "targeted for being loud, playing and even making music," while their "white peers use the 'n-word' all the time,' with no consequences.
Brito credited D97 Supt. Carol Kelley for paving the way for the club's establishment in February, but said that the measure falls short of systemic change.
Hannah Boudreau, a co-president of the Oak Park Teachers Association, said that the disciplinary issues at the middle schools predate the Social Justice Club. The survey, she said, was administered in the fall, with the help of the Illinois Education Association — the OPTA's parent entity.
"This data was collected long before those other things had taken place, so I don't think there's any correlation to be made between the data and the Social Justice Club," she said. "In our opinion, this is not about race disparities. It's about an overall lack of any policies to ensure that there are high expectations of all students."
Boudreau said that the survey is the first administered by the OPTA during her nine years in the district. The administration typically administers surveys evaluating school climate, but union members felt more comfortable with their own survey, she said.
"We had a lot of feedback from our membership that we don't feel confident that the administration's surveys are confidential," Boudreau said. "People are very fearful of retaliation [by building- and/or district-wide administrators]. That's a common complaint among teachers."
Boudreau said that she thinks some of the breakdown in the disciplinary structure at the middle schools "has to do with SB 100, but I think we're misinterpreting that legislation. SB 100 does not mean zero consequences or zero expectations."
Boudreau said that currently there is no standard disciplinary policy that can be consistently applied across the two middle schools — something the teachers want changed.
"This survey is not meant to be adversarial at all," she said. "When we wrapped up our most recent collective bargaining agreement, we wanted to have a peaceable relationship with the administration. We need to build our relationship, not dismantle it. I hope this is heard through the vein of mutual respect, collaboration and partnership."
Describing the Monday meeting between D97 administrators and OPTA reps, Jasculca said, "We had a positive and productive initial conversation about their concerns, and agreed to continue working together to identify some potential solutions," he said. "We strongly believe in viewing behavior through an equity lens, taking a more restorative approach to addressing disciplinary issues and having high expectations for all of our students."