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Moving too Fast on Student Discipline?

Illinois debate asks whether relaxing enforcement puts school staff at risk

by Tim Walker

Last Tuesday, the Rockford School district in Illinois approved a bold, controversial new discipline code that has created a stir among the area’s educators.

The code, proposed by superintendent LaVonne Sheffield, seeks to refocus the student discipline away from punishment and toward rehabilitation. The system provides a new matrix for principals on what they should do when a student misbehaves. Discipline violations are now divided into six levels. Interventions for the least serious include, for example, a student-teacher conference or a written apology. Out-of-school suspensions and expulsions will still be enforced for the most serious offenses.

Sheffield says the new plan will help teach positive behaviors and reduce the number of suspensions, expulsions and arrests. During the 2008-09 school year, Rockford students were suspended a total of 41,000 days.

“You can’t expect kids to do well academically,” explains Sheffield, “ if you keep throwing them out of school.”

But Rockford Education Association (REA) President Molly Phalen, while acknowledging that administration’s overall good intentions, believes Sheffield and the school board moved too fast in devising and implementing the new code. Specifically, Phalen says the safety concerns of educators are not being properly addressed.

“School staff are particularly worried over what they believe are lesser consequences for particularly major infractions,” says Phalen.

Much of the debate over the new code also focuses around a reduced police presence in Rockford schools – at a time when police presence is growing in many schools across the country. Superintendent Sheffield Sheffield has implemented new restrictions on police officers entering schools. She has made it clear that she does not want to see students led away in handcuffs and that all police interviews, must be conducted off-campus.Meanwhile, teachers, says Sheffield, should not rely on police to shoulder the burden of the school’s discipline issues.

But Phalen responds that the district hasn’t done nearly enough in providing adequate resources to train staff on how to respond effectively – through conflict resolution, mediation, etc. - to discipline problems.  The administration believes, however, that the new code does not represent such a radical departure to warrant an infusion of new professional development. 

In the meantime, Rockford Education Association filed a demand to bargain with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, claiming that the district shouldn’t have made these decisions without an opportunity to bargain. As that issue is being resolved, Phalen says the union will be monitoring the impact of the new code and devising ways to support school staff.


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