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Demonstrators in Carbondale denounce discipline disparities, call to remove resource officer at CCHS
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Demonstrators in Carbondale denounce discipline disparities, call to remove resource officer at CCHS

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CARBONDALE — Joining similar demonstrations across the country, about 50 members of the community gathered Thursday afternoon outside of University Mall and silently marched to the high school in solidarity with the calls asking for change at Carbondale Community High School.

Their message: Racial equality and police-free schools.

According to an analysis by The Southern Illinoisan looking at school and federal discipline data, Black students were found to be disproportionately disciplined at CCHS when compared to their peers.

In school districts across the country, Black and Hispanic students are more likely, on average, to be suspended and expelled, according to a ProPublica database. A 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said “implicit racial bias was the likely cause of these continuing disparities.”

The disparities in discipline against Black students at CCHS are detailed in school discipline records provided to The Southern Illinoisan. Black students account for about 29% of the student population at the school but receive the majority of the discipline reported in school records.

The records detail discipline at the school by race for the 2018-2019 academic year as well as about the first half of the 2019-2020 school year. Schools moved to a virtual setting during the second semester after the COVID-19 pandemic spread throughout the state.

From August to early December of the 2019-2020 school year, out of the 1,745 detentions given to CCHS students, 1,071 of them were to Black students — about 61% of all detentions given. During the timeframe, 431 in-school suspensions were given, 288 of them to Black students — about 67%. And 21 out-of-school suspensions were given, 16 of them were to Black students — about 76%.

During the 2018-2019 school year, of the 3,471 detentions given to CCHS students, 2,122 of them were to Black students — about 61%. During the timeframe, 749 in-school suspensions were given, 450 of them to Black students — about 60%. And 49 out-of-school suspensions were given, 30 of them were to Black students — about 61%. 

Discipline disparities at CCHS

The discipline statistics were staggering to community members, including Jess Jobe who is a member of the Carbondale Racial Justice Coalition. “There’s no way to look at those numbers and not see systemic racism and not be able to connect the dots with institutional racism and the school to prison pipeline,” she said.

The coalition, along with five other community organizations, sent an open letter to the CCHS Board of Education addressing the school’s discipline practices and calling for the removal of the school resource officer.

Steve Murphy, superintendent at Carbondale Community High School, read the letter to the board during its Thursday evening meeting. He said the letter was not signed by a specific individual but would follow up with the sender to see if they would like to meet. Brian Woodward, board president, said as a board they would not enter discussion on the public comments presented.

The letter states that nationally “school suspensions and expulsions have increased fivefold since 1980” due to a “decades-long increase in school policing; disciplinary proceedings initiated by School Resource Officers” and similarly to “the justice system outside of schools,” discipline is “implemented more harshly and more frequently with students of color.”

Murphy said CCHS has pushed to “limit the amount of exclusionary discipline” especially within the last three or four years. He notes the school’s efforts can be demonstrated in the numbers between the 2017-2018 school year and the 2018-2019 school year. Suspensions dropped about half between the years, but Black students still made up about 60% of suspensions.

“We’ve really tried to only suspend for the most major violations and so that’s been our focus,” Murphy said. He said there are societal inequities which could contribute to the discrepancies in discipline for some students, such as the economic gap, the impact of the "War on Drugs" on Black communities and additional trauma.

“Our students aren’t immune from the various societal inequities that exist,” Murphy said. “I think you can say our African American students do have to deal with more issues outside of the school [...] and that may impact their performance in school along with a lot of other factors.”

He said there are a lot of societal factors in play that schools are fighting against, but school officials need to “keep on fighting and reflecting” on them.

Resource officers at CCHS

The school resource officer program at CCHS was started in about 2012 to replace the school’s director of security role, Murphy said. The resource officer is charged with “keeping the school safe,” creating “crisis plans” for different types of emergencies and providing education about police practices to students at the school. If there is an incident in the school which would involve law enforcement, the school resource officer responds for the local police.

Many see school resource officers as essential personnel in keeping students safe: Responding in a school shooting, breaking up fights and quickly addressing students who are caught with drugs or guns. During the 2017-2018 school year, public schools across the country reported 962,300 violent incidents and 476,100 nonviolent incidents, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

While there are varying practices on appointing school resource officers across the country, the officer at CCHS is a sworn member of the Carbondale Police Department and is paid by the city, then the city is reimbursed by the school district, Murphy said. 

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The current school resource officer at CCHS carries the same rights, duties and responsibilities as a member of the Carbondale Police Department, such as making arrests at the school and is armed while on the job. They are a state-certified juvenile officer and have received training in basic resource certification, de-escalation techniques, crisis intervention, cultural competency and procedural justice, according to Roni LeForge, City of Carbondale spokeswoman.

But, Murphy says removing the school resource officer isn’t a solution for disciplinary issues.

“If we terminated the relationship tomorrow, there would still be suspensions and lunch detentions at Carbondale High School,” he said. “There is a little bit of a disconnect in having an officer here and how many detentions there are.”

When looking at physical altercations, Murphy said administration has gone “back and forth” on deciding when a case will go to school administration versus the school resource officer and can be “depending on the severity of the fight.” He said school officials can press disorderly conduct against students involved in a fight based on the situation.

Jobe said when she looks at the discipline numbers at the school “there just isn’t a consistent discipline policy that is being equitably applied.”

Marching for change

In the wake of George Floyd’s death while in custody of the Minneapolis Police Department on Memorial Day, Jobe and the Carbondale community took to the streets to amplify their message. As demonstrators stepped forward to speak out against racial injustices, they were met with cheers and clapping from the crowd.

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School boards in larger cities are taking note such as in Minneapolis, Denver and Portland, where the boards have cut ties with police officers within their schools. The “George Floyd Resolution to Eliminate the Oakland Schools Police Department” was passed by the Oakland, California, school district after police used tear gas to disperse teens demonstrating for police-free schools.

Leah Hall, a 2018 graduate of CCHS, said the issues at the high school can not be “blamed on one person or open position” but are ingrained within the “entire mindset of the faculty, staff and student body.” She said in order to move forward, the school has to “not be afraid to admit that mistakes have been made.”

“I think a lot of people don’t want to say, ‘Hey, I did something wrong’ and ‘Hey, I need help to fix it’ but if the people in charge around here are OK with that and are comfortable with that, then I think a lot of positive changes can happen,” Hall said.

What's next

Murphy said the letter to the board “appears to connect the school resource officer to student discipline practices” nor did the social media posts about the demonstration. But, he said the school resource officer “doesn’t handle student discipline.”

“Our resource officer has never written a detention or suspended a student,” Murphy said. “The idea that we would get rid of the resource officer and somehow change the number of lunch detentions we give is just a disconnect.”

As many in the community have taken to social media to defend the resource officer, Jobe said she and fellow demonstrators want to emphasize their calls to remove officers from schools should not be taken as a personal attack on one individual, but should be looked at holistically.

“We do think that schools all over the country, including in Carbondale, should take a hard look at the presence of police in schools and what kind of message that sends to kids of color in particular,” she said.

Chastity Mays, a community member involved in organizing the event, said people have to take into consideration the long history of policing in America and how that translates to schools.

“We think there are alternatives and there are different ways to think about things so it may be uncomfortable to look at things changing," Mays said, "but it's a conversation that needs to be had.”

While there have been calls to replace the officer with mental-health professionals, Murphy said the school has mental health and social service professionals readily available all while having community partnerships in order to serve students.

“We’re not just relying on a resource officer in our building,” he said. “There are a lot of districts in southern Illinois that aren’t as fortunate as we are to even have one full time social worker but we sure seem to have those mental health programs at our disposal.”

The Illinois State Board of Education released a resolution Wednesday affirming its commitment to eliminate racial injustice. The board also calls on public school boards “in a commitment to critically examine and address policies and practices with a racial equity lens, eliminate racial injustice and, as an important message to their communities, adopt and publicly post resolutions affirming that commitment to action.”

Administrators, counselors and faculty at CCHS continue to look into solutions to the racial disproportionality in the school’s discipline practices, including additional training “on bias and addressing inequity” in the midst of protests and a global pandemic, Murphy said.

“I think with everything that is going on in the country, every organization needs to look at their own biases,” he said. “I think we do need to look at the data and see if there's anything we’re doing that contributes to the discrepancies in the numbers.”

Southern Illinoisans hold demonstrations in response to George Floyd's death

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Brian Munoz is a correspondent for The Southern.

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