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DECATUR – The Decatur district is among 83 statewide to be flagged by the Illinois State Board of Education for high rates of suspension and expulsion for three consecutive years.

As part of 2015 legislation that passed the General Assembly, school discipline records are made available to the public on the Illinois State Board of Education's website. In Central Illinois, Bloomington, Champaign, Danville, Decatur, Peoria and Springfield districts are all in the top 20 percent in discipline statistics. They were among 83 of more than 852 Illinois districts that have been flagged by the state board for having high suspension or expulsion rates for three consecutive years. No action will be taken against those districts by the state.

“The identification sent out the beginning of July is for information purposes only, to let districts know where they stand,” said Jackie Matthews, spokeswoman for the state board.

Decatur Superintendent Paul Fregeau did not respond to requests for comment.

Part of the original intent of the requirement to provide the public with the information was to let parents and communities see what's happening in their districts, including disparities in discipline rates between white and black students. However, that information is not always provided. Decatur's records, for example, include the grade level of the students, the type of offense, and whether those students received in-school or out-of-school suspension, but not their ethnicity. That's the same situation in state board records for Champaign, Urbana, Bloomington, Danville and Springfield, all cities with similar income and racial makeups compared with Decatur.

In the 2017 report, Decatur had 2,680 in-school suspensions and 1,520 out-of-school suspensions, six expulsions and one transfer to alternative education in lieu of other action, according to figures on the Illinois State Board of Education's website.

For Decatur public schools, a focus on changing the perception

Decatur schools spokeswoman Maria Robertson provided a chart showing Decatur's suspension rate for the same year was 16.5, placing the district in the top 20 percent statewide. 

Another part of the original intent of the reporting requirement was for districts to work to improve their rates.

The Decatur school district has considered and rejected several plans over the last few years for changing alternative education.

Committees have suggested several things, from using part of Stephen Decatur Middle School, which could hold several hundred more students than it houses now, to the current plan of creating alternative placement rooms in each building. The first three schools with such rooms will be Franklin, Muffley and Enterprise, and will use principles of trauma-informed schools and restorative justice practices, which those three schools' staffs have been working on as part of a pilot program across the area.

With the implementation of Senate Bill 100, Illinois schools are required to exhaust all other options prior to imposing suspension or exclusion longer than three days. Schools retain the authority to determine which interventions are appropriate. This is not required for removal for three days or fewer. If the student's conduct is so disruptive or dangerous that removal is the best option, and administrators document that – such as an attempt to use a weapon or sell drugs at school – the courts will generally uphold those decisions.

Decatur schools to pilot new alternative education rooms in the fall

As long ago as the 2015-16 school year, the school board appointed a committee to study alternative education and make recommendations for changes, but between the state's budget crisis at the time, and a lack of agreement among board members regarding proposed changes, nothing was done then. Board President Dan Oakes, who was a board member then, questioned the amount of money the district spends on alternative education and the lack of positive results. Oakes said that between 2012 and 2016, the program had served 324 students at a cost of $2.7 million, but only eight had graduated.

“To me, this illustrates a need to move forward with something that's a little more efficient,” Oakes said in 2016. “Something that's better for the students and far more cost-efficient.”

Then-board member Alida Graham, a retired special education teacher, objected to putting so much emphasis on cost, however.

“I'm appalled we're reducing the care of children to dollars and cents,” Graham said at the same board meeting. “It's not about cutting funds to serve children who need it. I want to see Decatur public schools have the best program we can have.”

In the years since then, the alternative education programs have continued: Milligan Academy Safe School and Futures Unlimited, both overseen by the Macon-Piatt Regional Office of Education for the entire region, and Phoenix Academy, which is Decatur's own program, plus Special Education Alternative Placement, which is the Macon-Piatt Special Education District's program for its students. The special education program has its own building while the other three are housed at the Alternate Education Center, 300 E. Eldorado St., formerly the technical academy.

Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Herald & Review.

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