By Joe McGehee
Rockford Public School District 205 teachers and an administrator have reported what they perceive to be pressure to reduce the number of discipline referrals they write.
Discipline referrals record disciplinary infractions committed by students. Many school districts across the nation use discipline referrals to evaluate student behavior and to determine the differing behavior support needed across the school.
District 205 Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield wrote in a personal address in the fall 2009 issue of Context, the quarterly newsletter of Rockford Public Schools: “…The number of disciplinary referrals issued as of Oct. 31 (2009) declined by more than 50 percent from the same time in 2008, and the number of out-of-school suspensions dropped by nearly 56 percent.”
A District 205 administrator and three District 205 teachers—who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal—expressed their concerns to draw attention to what many teachers allege is a worsening situation in regard to student conduct in Rockford public schools.
Numerous calls for comment to Rockford Public School District 205 Chief Communications Officer Mark Bonne went unreturned as of press time. As stated in the Dec. 9 issue of The Rock River Times, District 205 officials will “…not make it their practice to comment on anonymous allegations.” However, Molly Phalen, president of the Rockford Education Association (REA), went on the record to support the anonymous allegations made by the administrator and teachers.
“I’m not surprised at all by teachers stating they feel pressure to reduce the number of discipline referrals they write,” Phalen said. “The statements from the administrator and teachers are pretty representative of how many administrators and staff members feel in regards to pressure from 201 S. Madison St. to reduce the number of referrals.
“There are definitely discipline referrals that have not been acted upon properly, according to the teachers and administrators I’ve spoken with, and these people do not fault the on-site administrators in their schools,” Phalen continued. “Those I have spoken to feel that the handling of some of the referrals doesn’t benefit their schools or an environment conducive to learning.”
Following are the allegations made by the one administrator and three teachers:
District 205 administrator: “There is definite pressure being placed on teachers to reduce the number of discipline referrals they write. They are made to feel that they should reduce the number of discipline referrals by simply not writing some of them. They are being pressured to try some of the methods outlined in the revised administrative guide like interventions and making the students write letters of apology. The students still act up, I think, because they know now that they will not be punished as severely. People on the ground floor know what it’s like in our schools, but she (Sheffield) doesn’t deal with them. It really seems as if she has no clue as to what’s going on in the schools.”
District 205 teacher No. 1: “The principal presented the staff with an e-mail this week claiming that if teachers were to teach standards-based lessons, they wouldn’t have as many referrals to write during their class hours. He consistently lists how many referrals each teacher writes with his/her name next to the amount of referrals generated in a given frame of time. He ranks the teachers in order of highest to lowest number of teacher-generated referrals. He disseminates this information in staff meetings periodically. This behavior tells the teacher that they’re being scrutinized or evaluated (which is against REA contract) on the amount of referrals they have or have not written. The teachers at my school believe the principal is getting a directive from 201 S. Madison St. to reprimand teachers in such a manner. It is a call to ALLOW students to act like total idiotic fools as they please because the current discipline code allows for this to happen.”
District 205 Teacher No. 2: “We were told at a meeting with Sheffield that the discipline referrals, suspensions and expulsions were going to be reduced dramatically. And I’ve noticed administrators and principals being very careful with suspensions and expulsions throughout the school year. Students are being given suspensions, but they are not writing them up as suspensions. Basically, some administrators are calling parents and advising them to keep the student at home for a few days as a cooling-off period. It seems to many teachers that she (Sheffield) is playing with the numbers.”
District 205 teacher No. 3: “Teachers are being made to feel that writing discipline referrals for offenses that normally warrant a referral being written is now somehow wrong. It’s obvious to me and many other teachers around the district that administrators are getting pressure from their superiors to reduce the number of discipline referrals that are written. We can’t turn a blind eye to some of the things that are going on in our classrooms and hallways. Discipline has been a problem in our schools for years, and to make the students feel as if they will receive a less severe punishment sets up a dangerous situation on our campuses. If you want proof of this, just look at what happened at Auburn and Guilford last week.”
Last week was particularly eventful in District 205 schools, as eight arrests were made Dec. 7-11.
Dec. 10, according to Rockford police, four female students from Jefferson High School assaulted a female student with a padlock after school in the Guilford High School parking lot. The four female students were arrested Friday, Dec. 11, on charges including aggravated battery and criminal trespass on state-supported property.
Friday, Dec. 11, a male student was arrested for bringing a .32-caliber handgun to the Auburn High School campus while wearing a bulletproof vest. The student was charged with aggravated unlawful use of weapons, possession of body armor and no FOID card.
Later that same day, the younger brother of the student arrested at the Auburn High School campus was found in possession of a firearm and cannabis at the Auburn Freshman Campus. This student was charged with aggravated unlawful use of weapons and possession of cannabis with intent to deliver.
Another juvenile was arrested at Auburn High School Dec. 11 and charged with aggravated battery, criminal trespass on state-supported property and resisting arrest after a physical altercation with a school staff member.
Tuesday, Dec. 8, a student was injured in an altercation involving a knife at Guilford High School. A male student was arrested and charged with armed robbery, aggravated battery, mob action and possession of cannabis.
Other recent occurrences in the district included a West Middle School teacher being pushed to the ground Dec. 3 while attempting to stop a fight between two students. The injuries sustained by the teacher resulted in nerve damage. Events at East High School Nov. 18 and 19 included false fire alarms being pulled and reported chaos in the hallways. Students and parents alleged there was violence and rioting at the school, but District 205 officials denied such claims.
In response to these incidents, Rockford School Board President David Kelley said: “To the best of my knowledge, each of these incidents is being dealt with through our discipline code. We are a large school district, and these incidents have been happening for years.”
From the Dec. 16-22, 2009 issue