One morning, a Chicago student entered school and walked through the metal detector. It’s part of the daily routine, a precaution meant to prevent students from bringing weapons to school. But this time, the beeper went off. The student stopped. School security and administrators gathered around. They looked through the student’s backpack and found no weapons—but they did find a small pack of gum, each piece wrapped in aluminum foil.

In accordance with the school’s no-gum policy, the gum had a five-dollar penalty, with each stick costing an additional dollar: eight dollars in total, for a pack of gum that probably cost a quarter as much. It may seem bizarre, but the disciplinary case is just one of many that Jose Sanchez has encountered as the Safe Schools Consortium coordinator for the collaborative Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE). Sanchez works with VOYCE’s cohort of youth leaders, many of whom are CPS students who joined the organization’s Campaign for Common Sense Discipline after being subject to school disciplinary policies that they deem unfair.

“Our organizing philosophy is that the people impacted most by the issues have the capacity to make the change for themselves,” Sanchez said. “So because of that, VOYCE youth tend to lead a lot of the things within VOYCE itself. So whenever we have meetings, they run the agenda, they create the agenda, they facilitate the agenda.”

In November, a group of VOYCE youth leaders traveled to Springfield to speak with lawmakers about their personal experiences with harsh discipline and to advocate for Senate Bill 3004, which calls for reforms to school disciplinary policies across the state. The bill is currently pending in the Illinois Senate and will be reintroduced in the new session. Among its provisions is a ban on punitive fines, but it also proposes a host of other changes that aim to stop suspensions and expulsions from obstructing learning.

Currently, Sanchez said students are often suspended or expelled for nonviolent offenses that could be resolved within the school. Dress-code violations are particularly contentious—Sanchez cited one student who was suspended for wearing open-toed shoes, another for wearing sweatpants to school on a cold day.

Out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for nonviolent offenses create challenges for both students and teachers by creating large attendance gaps, Sanchez said, preventing students from learning and teachers from instructing in a regular routine. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, students who are penalized with out-of-school suspension or expulsion are ten times more likely to drop out of school, and often participate in more high-risk activities while out of school rather than reforming their behavior.

SB 3004 would prevent schools from giving out-of-school suspensions longer than three days without written justification and the existence of “immediate danger to the classroom environment.” It also requires that schools provide services and support to students while they’re absent.

Some groups, such as the Illinois Principals Association, are concerned that schools will be unable to maintain students’ safety if they cannot suspend or expel students before they cause harm to others. However, Sanchez said the bill allows schools to define what constitutes “immediate danger.”

The real reason for excessive suspensions and expulsions, Sanchez argued, is a lack of resources and preparedness on the part of schools to deal with disobedience in a more constructive way. The consequences are unequal—Illinois is the number-one state in the U.S. for racial disparity in school suspensions, according to a 2012 UCLA report. The divide is present both in Chicago and in the rest of Illinois, making this a state issue.

According to Sanchez, youth participation in policy and advocacy allows VOYCE to address the realities that students face in school, rather than relying on outside groups to create policies. And their perspective is just as important in the political sphere.

“I could share something with an elected official, [but] it’s completely different for them to hear it from someone on the ground, someone who lives through it every day,” Sanchez said. “Just in terms of what Springfield looks like—it tends to be older, male, [and], you know, white—to have, for example, a young woman of color there, able to talk to an elected official and convince them to work and focus on this issue—it’s not only powerful and empowering for the young person, but I think it’s a great benefit to the type of representation that Springfield has.”

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