Iowa City schools reforming discipline practices

In Zoom calls on Dec. 1 and Dec. 3, parents, students, and district faculty shared their concerns about the district’s discipline practices, and proposed solutions.


Jeff Sigmund

Iowa City Community School District sign 1725 North Dodge St.. As seen on Thursday, Oct.15, 2020.

Natalie Dunlap, News Reporter

The Iowa City Community School District is working to create a new discipline manual for the 2021-22 school year and create a more equitable system for students, gathering proposed solutions from board meetings and a district-wide survey.

The district held meetings over Zoom on Dec. 1 and Dec. 3, to address student, faculty, and staff concerns over discipline procedures and come up with proposed solutions to better support underrepresented students and students of color.

Proposed solutions at these meetings included increasing training for all faculty and students, equipping administrators with restorative justice practices, tracking and defining when the police should be called, providing students with a third party to advocate for them during disciplinary proceedings, and recruiting, retaining, and supporting staff of color.

A survey sent to district families asking for input on Nov. 30 will close on Dec. 18. There will be a listening session with cabinets and the administrative council on Dec. 15, as well as a listening session with the cultural proficiency team meeting Dec. 16.

Assistant Superintendent Amy Kortemeyer said the district has worked on equity in its schools for years, but recent calls for racial justice nationwide have put an emphasis on that work for the current school year.

“The events this summer really highlighted, or reinforced, our need to really tackle as much as we could moving forward,” she said.

According to the district’s Annual Progress Report, Black students made up more than half of the office referrals for the 2019-20 school year, despite making up 20.5 percent of the population. White students, who make up 55.2 percent of the population, had 39.29 percent of office referrals.

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“Black students report lower levels of disciplinary equity, but higher levels of disciplinary consistency, strictness, and transparency compared to White students. Non-binary and LGB students report lower levels of all aspects of the safety and disciplinary environment,” according to the 2020 Climate Survey Summary.

Kortemeyer said the district began hearing from the Iowa Freedom Riders and the district’s Equity Advisory Committee in board meetings to address racial injustice within the school system over the summer.

“We identified several areas that we wanted to focus on this school year — a couple on the operations and management side of the system, and then several on the teaching and learning side of the system,” she said. “And so, the work that I’m helping lead is … around a workgroup that we’re now calling PBIS [Positive Behavior Intervention Supports], and rethinking school discipline workgroup.”

The workgroup is made up of roughly 30 members who are looking at the district’s discipline manual to make it more equitable and more free of bias, she said. The group is meeting 10 times over the school year and has already met twice.

Kortemeyer said the feedback and comments from the survey and public input meetings will be summarized and presented for the positive behavior intervention group and rethinking school discipline work group.

The work group’s timeline aims to have a new discipline manual by the next school year, she said, to be approved in April.

Currently, the group is focused on discovery, looking at data, and hearing from the public, Kortemeyer said. The meetings held on Dec. 1 and Dec. 3 over Zoom were the latest step in this process.

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Co-chair of the Equity Advisory Committee Jayne Finch said she joined the committee several years ago because she wanted to change how the district handles discipline and bullying issues. The Equity Advisory Committee requested the Discipline Procedures Policy manual be revised in May 2018.

Powerschool, an education-technology company used by parents and students primarily for grades, can be used for viewing office referrals, as well. Finch said she believes the data from those referrals shows the racial disparities in the school system.

“As I understand it, most of it [the manual] was written using office referrals from Powerschool the year before, which we all know are biased,” she said. “So, we already have an issue of disparities, and now we’re using data from those disparities to create a disciplinary manual, and so it’s got implicit biases in it.”

Finch said it’s important the manual is being revised, but it’s also one part of a group of changes involving staffing, curriculum and culture, that need to be addressed.

Iowa City parent Mary Kate Pilcher Hayek, a public-school advocate who attended the meeting on Dec. 1, said she was able to talk with people in the district she hadn’t interacted with before, including parents from military families and parents of students with learning accommodations.

Pilcher Hayek said there won’t be an easy solution to addressing systemic racism, but she found the call productive.

“Sometimes I walk away from meetings about this and think, ‘Shoot, basically we all just decided that this is an unsolvable problem and we just recited all the problems all over again,’” she said. “And that’s easy to do because these are very serious issues that districts like ours will face. But this time, we finished [and] everyone in that meeting … they were dedicated not just to saying, ‘This is what has been difficult,’ but, ‘Here are ideas.’”

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