Lyons Township High School has been suspending and expelling students of color at significantly higher rates than white students, prompting the state of Illinois to require the school to come up with a plan, which the school board approved May 16, to address that imbalance.

 A law enacted in 2016 requires that the Illinois State Board of Education track the racial profile of students suspended and expelled. The top 20 percent of school districts exhibiting racial disproportionality when it comes to “exclusionary discipline” must adopt an improvement plan until they are not in the top 20 percent for three consecutive years.  

LTHS was not in the top 20 percent of school districts for suspensions or expulsions in the 2020-21 school year, but has been in the top 20 percent of disproportionality for suspensions for four of the last six years.

The school district was supposed to file a discipline improvement plan in 2018 but did not for reasons that were not explained.

That did not sit well for Camille Alvarez, a Black LTHS graduate and the mother of a graduate.

“You guys have been sitting on this information for years and the state had to come back a second time and ask you to comply,” Alvarez said. “Why is LT dragging their feet to comply? Lyons Township knows that there is a problem with how they discipline minority children. It is not equitable. It is not fair.”

In the 2019-20, students of color at LTHS were expelled at a rate of nearly four times as often as white students. In 2018-19 the disproportionality rate was around 2.2 times. 

In 2017-18 students of color were expelled at nearly 3.7 times the rate of white students, and the rate was about 3.1 times in 2016-17 and 4.5 times in 2015-16, according to a memo prepared by Director of Student Services Leslie Owens for the school board.

The memo also indicates the students of color at LTHS were suspended at higher rates than white students. 

In the 2019-20 school year, 64 students of color were suspended at LTHS compared to 41 white students. More white students than students of color were suspended only one year in the last six, in 2018-19 when 78 white students were suspended compared to 67 students of color. 

But, according to the latest Illinois School Report Card the school district’s student enrollment is overwhelmingly white, at 69.6 percent. Hispanic students comprise 22.5 of the enrollment, while 3.1 percent are Black, 2.2 percent are Asian and 2.5 percent are mixed race. 

Drug offenses are the most likely reason for LTHS students to be suspended or expelled. In the 2019-20 school year 27 white students, 21 Hispanic students, 10 Black students and one Asian student were suspended or expelled for drug offenses.

Thirteen Hispanic students, six Black students, six white students, and two Asian students were suspended or expelled for physical confrontations during the 2019-20 school year.

As part of its discipline improvement plan, LTHS will examine discipline data and increase services. This year the district created two new positions, a director of equity and belonging and director of student services. Next year LTHS will hire three more people, including a bilingual coordinator, an additional social worker and an additional school counselor to attempt to better meet student needs.

The school is also creating a committee to review and revise the student handbook and code of conduct. LTHS also has been implementing restorative justice practices where students try to rectify wrongs and build community. 

“We’re teaching our students without simply removing them without teaching them the skills they need for success,” said Jennifer Rowe, the school’s first-year director of equity and belonging.

Rowe said it is important to help students develop relationships and give them a sense of belonging at school. 

“Fighting is just the outpouring of struggles,” Rowe said.

In dealing with drug and alcohol use, LTHS is emphasizing treatment rather than punishment and has partnered this year with the Rosecrance Health Network which specializes in treating addiction. 

A Rosecrance counselor is now available for individualized assessments. When a student is found in possession of or under the influence of illegal substances, instead of being given an immediate out-of-school suspension, students now have the option to undergo an individualized assessment and may opt in to an alternative to suspension program through Rosecrance. Thirty-five students have taken advantage of this option this year.

School board member Alison Kelly and Superintendent Brian Waterman addressed concerns expressed in the community and on social media that the new policy will result in a double standard and lighter discipline for students of color, because school officials will be preoccupied with not disciplining students of color to satisfy state officials to the detriment of the wider school community.

“We want to make sure that there are not two separate rules here,” Kelly said.

Waterman assured her that would not be the case.

“We have one student handbook; we have one code of code of conduct,” Waterman said. “We’re not talking about two separate rules here.”