Chicago Schools Plow $51M Into Security for “Zero Tolerance” Rules

High schoolers are being suspended for minor infractions like taking out cell phones in class. And it's costing the already budget-strapped district millions.

By Bryan Gerhart Jul 18, 2011

There are a lot of kids who don’t think they deserve to be punished. But a lot of kids don’t have a cost-analysis report that details why it’s damaging to students and the public school systems in which they’re taught. Last week, over 75 high school students, parents, teachers and activists rallied at the Chicago Public Schools headquarters to present their findings and call for an end to the district’s overuse of harsh punitive measures.

The cost-analysis, compiled by the student group Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), details the harmful effects that the Chicago Public School system’s zero tolerance disciplinary polices have on student achievement and the enormous costs they impose on taxpayers. Despite an estimated $612 million budget shortfall for 2012, last year the city’s public school system allocated $51.4 million for security guards. The report contrasts this with the comparatively meager $3.5 million that was allocated towards school-based college and career coaches.

It’s not the existence, but the drastic overuse of harsh disciplinary measures like suspension, expulsion and arrests that has VOYCE and their supporters concerned. The report, "Failed Policies, Broken Futures: The True Cost of Zero Tolerance," cites that in 2009, there were 4,597 school-based arrests of Chicago Public School students age 16 and under, 78 percent of which were for minor offenses. While the strict punitive policies (no longer referred to by the CPS system as "zero tolerance") are intended to keep drugs and violence out of Chicago schools, their vague requisites for employment lead to overuse by educators and faculty. If students "seriously disrupt the orderly educational process" they can be suspended or expelled, however what kind of behavior seriously disrupts the process is up for interpretation.

Two years ago, high school graduate Carlil Pittiman was expelled for cutting class, and told Chicago radio station WBEZ that he was stuck at home for a month because no other school would allow him to enroll with the expulsion on his record. "School policy is supposed to be in our best interest but I don’t think keeping me in the house for a month was in my best interest at all," he said.

Some of those who showed up at Chicago Public School headquarters last week worry that not only do the harsh punishments not work, but that they are often abused in an effort to get rid of under-achieving students. With high schoolers being suspended, expelled and arrested for instances as minor as taking out a cell phone in class or entering the classroom minutes after the bell rings, its easy to see how these sentiments are cultivated.

VOYCE and those who rallied last week are demanding to meet with Chicago Public School officials to help create a new student disciplinary policy that would emphasize counselors and prevention-based strategies rather than security officers and punishments. The group points out that last year, CPS’ Office of Safety and Security had a budget 48 times larger than that of the Office of Student Support and Engagement and 84 times larger than what the Office of Teaching and Learning could spend. "Failed Policies, Broken Futures" goes beyond the immediate savings that eliminating harsh punishments can provide. It marks that students who have been arrested are 50 percent more likely to drop out of school, and that based on the cost of each lost graduate, Chicago taxpayers will face around $240 million in long-term costs. It emphasizes that even cutting the annual number of arrests in half could produce huge economic benefits for the city each year.

"Everyone says there’s violence and student’s aren’t learning," said Pamela Lewis, a Chicago Public School senior, in a VOYCE press release. "But that’s because our education is being taken away by unnecessary discipline measures."