Acting out

Most teachers think safety, discipline are lacking at Julian and Brooks, survey shows

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

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." 



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Reader Comments

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Kelly Bacon Desmarais  

Posted: May 28th, 2019 10:53 PM

After one year at Julian we transferred our kids to private school, as the school is nothing short of a circus. Shame on the administrators of Oak Park for putting the teachers in this position and wasting the tax payers' money. I'm not sure what they are doing with our tax dollars but I'm sure they are being wasted. Cynthia Brito and the entire social justice club need to go. They are not only toxic to the school environment but also dangerous. Her comment about the white kids using the "N" word is a bold-faced lie. Aside from my son being physically assaulted, this was one of my biggest complaints within the school. However, it wasn't the white kids who were using the "N" word and getting away with it. It's only a matter of time before people start leaving Oak Park all together.

Robert Wozniak from Oak Park  

Posted: May 20th, 2019 11:22 AM

@Pauline Rose: "Last, if anything, this article re-emphasizes through the statistics shown that there still remains a serious racial disparity in how discipline is administered." That actually is not at all what the statistics show b/c the article says nothing about what actions/behaviors are ultimately disciplined. How can you tell from the cited statistics what was done and by whom? Let's at least be honest as we grapple with what appear to be some pretty serious concerns at both middle schools.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: May 18th, 2019 11:27 AM

For all you do not know, and for all the school does not know, and only the Juvenile Officer will know is the complete criminal backround and history of the juvenile perpetrator. If you have a juvenile victim, do not let the school handle the issue alone. File a police report.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: May 18th, 2019 11:16 AM

In regards to the posting by Christopher Bell on May 16 @ 2019 hours, I would like to add on. I retired after 30 years on the Oak Park Police Department in 2004. If anyone has a juvenile school student who is a victim of an offense during school hours on school grounds, regardless of what the school says, take the juvenile to The Oak Park Police Department during the evenings or on the weekends and file a police report. Say the magic words, "I want to file a report, I will sigh a complaint, and I will go to court." There will probably be none of that. There are no checks and balances if the school handles the issue. Teachers and Administrators are not police officers and police officers don't teach your kids. The report will be turned over the Juvenile Officers who do a great follow up and the incident may be followed up by the School resource Officer. All juvenile records will be destroyed by request once the juvenile becomes an adult. Do not let the school handle the matter without the police. If the perpetrator is an adult, do the same, expect to come to court. Make the perpetrator spend their fiscal and political income for their defense.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: May 18th, 2019 10:21 AM

I have no issue with taking circumstances into account for non violent issues but there should be be a zero tolerance policy towards any violent behavior. I have a son at OPRF and one at Julian and I can tell you there's a definite difference between what Julian was like when my older son was there and what it's like now and not in a good way. It's not terrible but it's definitely worse. Now the victims of these situations are made to feel like they are at fault in some way or should just be somehow sympathetic. In an effort to make one group feel better we have made it acceptable to marginalize others which is simply not ok. We should give kids chances for many issues but not ones that cause harm to other students.

Bob Stokes  

Posted: May 17th, 2019 3:06 PM

I guess ideologues on both sides of the political spectrum find it hard to imagine that their good intentions are actually hurtful to the group they are supposed to help. The school board needs to step up here and place people over ideology. Listening to the concerns of the most expensive and important asset any school district has, its teachers, seems a good start.

Gerald Noah  

Posted: May 17th, 2019 2:39 PM

I'm not Gerald, I'm his wife, Shirley. Not personally on Facebook but I felt like weighing in on this. Maybe the time to start changing this middle school behavior is in grammar school. Maybe it's time to put into actual practice "All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten". Remember that book from 1986? Why can't we provide these books to our grammar school teachers so they can throw some of these "ideas" out to students in the middle of any other lessons, throughout the school day. It doesn't have to be preachy, it should be part of daily conversation to provide clarity to all students of what acceptable behavior is and provide tools for them to become good people. Maybe it's not too late for middle schoolers to benefit, but it would be a lot easier if they grew up in a school system that assumes everyone can benefit from being exposed to concepts of basic human decency. It's as important as everything else.

Elizabeth Titus Rexford  

Posted: May 17th, 2019 1:46 PM

As a teacher in District 97 from 1972 to 2003, I am saddened and outraged at the reports of poor discipline in our schools. Whatever else is happening, this must be addressed! This is appalling! There is no excuse for this at all. Students should follow the rules and respect the teachers. If there are issues, they should be approached in an appropriate way. I'm waiting to hear a better report, but I'm afraid it will take awhile. SHAME SHAME SHAME!!!

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: May 17th, 2019 12:17 PM

It is not like tolerating bad behavior is helping kids who behave badly. They are going to fail hard when they try to get a job someday and think they can get away with the bad behavior there. The real world outside of Oak Park is not going to tolerate it. No one wins under this poorly managed mess.

Alan Reed  

Posted: May 17th, 2019 8:29 AM

Christopher Bell, thank you for sharing your story, and I'm so sorry that this happened to your son and your family. If we want to know why our schools are underperforming, this is a big piece of the puzzle: we have de-prioritized education, taken voice away from those who want to educate/be educated, and empowered something else entirely. I can't blame anyone considering leaving the community over this, and can only expect that we will see much more of it.

Wes Gathings  

Posted: May 17th, 2019 6:18 AM

What Christopher Bell shared is an example of what John Abbott is warning us about. You can not spend more time treating and nurturing the person who did something wrong than the person directly wronged. What message does that send? Imagine you come to work late everyday and instead of you getting terminated your CEO and HR Manager get held responsible for reviewing their tardy policy and looking for every way possible to help you in your proven ability to come to work on time. That's how crazy it is this man's son was attacked in school and the convo will center around what made this young boy attack another. After awhile it doesn't matter why, what matters is that you did it. We can not make the majority of our institutions places that investigate the why. That's not their mission. The why is for counseling and resources on your own time not the shared time of teachers and other students.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: May 16th, 2019 11:42 PM

Thank you Christopher for sharing. Very informative (at least to me). And very, very disturbing.

Deb Brown  

Posted: May 16th, 2019 8:41 PM

Sadly, these comments seem very familiar. My kids attended middle school in 90s and we had the same issues. Maybe they've gotten worse but they are not new. Kids don't feel any connection to a school they attend for such a short period. It's always been a bad transition from elementary to high school. Maybe well intended but poorly executed.

Marianne Zapotocny  

Posted: May 16th, 2019 8:10 PM

Let's not underestimate the effects on our community of children and teachers being afraid of things happening at the middle school. If students are not encouraged to take personal responsibility for their actions, the students themselves and the schools are heading for some grave and serious territory.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: May 16th, 2019 6:53 PM

Christopher. Two questions if you feel you can answer. Did the 5 day suspension change the offending kid's behavior for the better - as well as his parents? And how did your son deal with the aftermath ... physically and emotionally?

C.J. Newton from Oak Park  

Posted: May 16th, 2019 3:18 PM

This is complicated stuff. Alice, this is another one of those times when people find themselves on the wrong side of history. I wouldn't want to be on the record on the wrong side of history. As a country, we are again going through some hard and desperately-needed change (hopefully), and change is painful, tumultuous, even dangerous. People get angry. Some of you have read about a time when black youth were killed for being "uppity." I imagine there are some pissed-off kids who don't know what to do with their feelings and some teachers who don't have any ideas either and who just want to maintain order. I don't know if we're barreling towards equality or are going to crash and burn again. I understand that the teachers are worried. I think a lot of people are. This kid gives me hope though. I wish he were from Oak Park. "White Boy Privilege"

Pauline Rose  

Posted: May 16th, 2019 1:17 PM

I'm concerned about the blame being placed on children here rather than examining the reasons the situation exists. The environment at the middle school my child attends is extraordinarily chaotic, unorganized, overwhelming and overcrowded. The children are seriously affected by the environment. The administration truly needs to re-examine how to change this and many staff would welcome change as well from what I've seen. Also, African American and other children of color feel incredibly disenfranchised by the treatment they receive here. It's an environment full of incredible racial tension for those who have kids who attend. Last, if anything, this article re-emphasizes through the statistics shown that there still remains a serious racial disparity in how discipline is administered.

Leslie Sutphen  

Posted: May 16th, 2019 11:03 AM

This makes me so sad. Our kids deserve to go to a school where they feel safe and where they are not unduly distracted by kids who are not interested in learning. Middle School is a tough time for all. There is no reason for chaos. Kids who want to learn have rights too. We need to figure this out - I'm sure that punishment is not the answer, but I know that I do not let my own kid do whatever she wants without consequences. There have to be consequences when actions affect other people adversely or society just does not function.

Alice Caputo  

Posted: May 16th, 2019 10:27 AM

This is a disgrace. School is for learning and anything that interferes with learning needs to be eliminated. If white racism is causing all the problems that means we should be seeing record high testing results in all AA schools, right?

Tammy Schulz from Oak Park  

Posted: May 15th, 2019 9:34 PM

As the mother of two middle schoolers, I am deeply grieved by these findings. I am thankful for our teachers and pray that a solution can be found to thie struggle. The underlying discussion in the community for years has been concern for the middle schools, with parents repeatedly saying they are relieved when they reach OPRF. I realize this is partly due to the challenging age, but also believe the model used is developmentally off base. At the age of 12, my children cannot manage 9 different class periods with 7 potentially different teachers. I hope the Board of Ed rethinks this model and finds a better model of education or at least a way to simplify for both teachers and students and reign in the chaos being experienced.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: May 15th, 2019 2:21 PM

John Abbott: Wonderfully articulated.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: May 15th, 2019 1:03 PM

I guess we have a choice. We can believe the teachers, who are trusted professionals, or we can believe Ms Brito and a small core of kids who apparently constantly find themselves in trouble for their behavior. I guess it comes down to questioning if all those professionals, of various races, ages and genders, are racists who want to make life hell for that small group over behavior? Or is that small group making life hell for the teachers and all the other students? I would have to lean hard towards believing the teachers.

Ada Johnson Tikkanen  

Posted: May 15th, 2019 1:00 PM

John Abbott I have reread your comment a few times. You are spot on.

Bruce Kline  

Posted: May 15th, 2019 11:52 AM

Rani: good point. The report should have included the response rate or made clear the response rate was 100%.

Rani Morrison from Oak Park  

Posted: May 15th, 2019 10:01 AM

Statistical nitpickiness, sorry: shouldn't it be "two thirds of respondents" versus "two thirds of teachers" ; since we don't know that 100% of all of the teachers at the middle schools completed the survey? As parents at the middle schools; will the survey be made public? Is it posted somewhere?

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: May 15th, 2019 9:38 AM

@JohnAbbott, Thank you for that well-thought out, well written response to the article. Your framing of the situation of some thinking of "education as a service" that is simply not distributed equally is very thought provoking and points persuasively to why there are so many gaps between teachers, parents, and kids (and don't forget administrators who set the policies and restrictions for their employees) when a collaborative environment is not established. To your point, education, particularly public education, is not like a service like cable! To make it work, everyone needs to be involved and begin to move beyond the blaming and recriminations. Unfortunately, this article suggests that the middle schools are mired in it.

John Abbott from Oak Park  

Posted: May 14th, 2019 7:22 PM

I lived in Detroit from 1972-84 and watched at close hand how that school system unraveled (for me the last straw was when automatic gunfire broke out during lunchtime at a nearby middle school). That death spiral had many causes, but things became truly irreversible when a critical mass of family members started placing themselves in opposition to the teachers. And some kids, keenly aware of the power dynamics in play, sensed their teachers' strategic weakness and began acting accordingly. It didn't take many incidents -- parents coming into the schools to loudly berate or physically threaten their kid's teachers ?" to set in motion a vicious cycle of teacher demoralization and student indiscipline. Oak Park is not yet quite that far gone, and we are as a rule a bit more genteel in how we go about our business, but to my mind similar dynamics have been established in our public schools. Some parents have grown extremely adept in using their children's feelings as a kind of moral cudgel, attacking the public schools' cultures of accomplishment with a counter-culture of recrimination and blame. The impact upon classroom dynamics was hardly difficult to foresee, and this article gives witness to the all-too-predictable consequences. In all of OP's discussions of school policy, I think, there has been a fundamental misunderstanding about education itself. All too often, it is treated as just another service, a service that has been inequitably distributed ?" and viewed in such a way, of course it ought to be presto-change-o simple to address that inequity. But education is not, nor never has been, a service in this simplistic sense. It is above all a partnership, between schools, teachers, parents and children, and educational achievement happens best when all these partners work together in good faith. For all those who have done their level best in recent years to disrupt and poison this partnership (take a bow, Dan Haley), shame on you.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: May 14th, 2019 6:35 PM

Students wearing "bonnets"? And is Brito and company in the school during school hours?

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: May 14th, 2019 5:35 PM

it looks like a lot of kids are going to be doing very poorly when they get to High School because this isn't working. What a mess. The only thing being taught is finger pointing.

Jim Frenkel  

Posted: May 14th, 2019 5:29 PM

And THIS is what our sky high property taxes are getting us? SERIOUSLY??!!

Bruce Kline  

Posted: May 14th, 2019 4:20 PM

No surprise here Alex. This is what happens when traditional normative behavior is mocked and replaced with so called restorative justice. The experience in D97 just duplicates earlier reports from schools in NYC.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: May 14th, 2019 3:36 PM

When schools explicitly allow students and self-appointed "community activist" groups to set school rules and policy, a lowering of standards for safety and performance at schools is the natural result, don't you think? Administrators, faculty and parents need to stop ceding their roles to kids and unqualified activist groups.

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