OPRF hosts safety discussion

In response to an influx of questions and concerns about safety and discipline following several highly publicized fights, the School Board, its Culture, Climate and Behavior Committee and Students Advocating for Equity (SAFE) hosted a “Community Conversation on Safety” on the evening of April 12.

The large turnout of about 100 people included high school and middle school parents, administrators, teachers, students, journalists and Oak Park police officers, who filled the tables of the South Cafeteria.

At 6 p.m., Superintendent Greg Johnson welcomed the crowd and thanked everyone for attending. “First of all, as great as it is to have a large turnout coming in and talking about this topic, I’m sorry that we have to come together to have a conversation about this topic,” he said.

Johnson noted that the school is mindful of the “act of faith” parents make when sending children to school, “that it’s going to go well for them educationally and physically.”

The event began with an in-depth presentation about the current data on student infractions.

A chart showed the number of students who received discipline referrals related to inappropriate physical contact (non-sexual): 56 in 2023, down from 76 last year. Overall this year, 370 students, or about 10 percent of the student body, is responsible for all offenses, according to the presentation.

One of the most notable graphs showed the number of weapons reported or found in the school: as of April of this year, one BB gun and five knives. Four of those knives were less than 3 inches long, and one was over 3 inches.

The presentation noted 77 vaping infractions this year, up from 49 last year.

Another point touched upon was unauthorized student exits. A slide showed nearly 500 unauthorized student exits from three school doors over a 13-day period. Principal Lynda Parker, working with the security department, recently proposed six new security positions at the Feb. 23 board meeting, which were approved by the board March 9. In her proposal, Parker noted that unguarded doors allow people to both exit and enter without permission, putting the school community at risk.

The slides also showed data from the Illinois 5Essentials survey about how safe students feel at school. The percentages were slightly lower than the previous year: 81 percent felt “mostly or very safe” in hallways in 2022, down from 83 percent in 2020, and 75 percent felt “mostly or very safe” in bathrooms, down from 80 percent in 2020.

After the data section, Parker introduced several hypothetical scenarios of infractions, followed by how the school would respond. Each hypothetical was presented by a different dean.

Their presentations referred to the school’s Behavior Education Plan, which divides disciplinary action into five levels (see graphic below).

Parker explained that at its core, the BEP works to educate students more than punish them. “Ultimately, we are a learning and teaching institution,” she said. “When a student shows us that they are having difficulty in any area of discipline, our first response is to teach them the behavior we want them to have.”

For example, a student disrupting a class to make a rude comment would be handled by the teacher in the classroom, where the teacher would explain what the student did and how it was to the detriment of every other student’s learning. This would be a level 1 response. If the behavior is repeated, the response could go up in levels.

After the presentation, each table of community members were told to turn to their own discussions. Mostly parents, the attendees gave feedback on the event, asked follow up questions and provided their own insight and opinions about how the school could better handle student safety. One administrator was assigned to each table to write down questions from the participants. They gave answers they knew and promised to answer any they didn’t in follow-up emails. One of the parents at Table 3, who preferred to remain unnamed, had a middle school daughter, who is on track to attend OPRF.

“I’ve heard–I guess that’s why I came here–that sometimes kids that are just walking in the hallways may accidentally be hit because of a fight that’s going on,” she said. “Where are these fights happening in the school? My kid is an introvert…going down the hallway, what is the percent likelihood that she might be in a situation where she has nothing to do with it that there might be an issue?”

The administrator/note taker at Table 3 was Dean Darryl Hobson. “It’s rare that we have an innocent bystander affected by an actual physical altercation in the halls,” he said. “The students I know that have been affected by it ran to the actual

incident to record it,” he said. “I actually don’t know of a student who was victimized as a result of a physical altercation who was not directly involved in it.”

Conversations among parents, students and administrators continued throughout the evening.

In addition to the safety measures discussed at the meeting, school officials are considering stricter consequences under the BEP.

At a school board meeting the next day, Parker presented the board with suggested 2023-2024 revisions to the BEP that had been formulated and approved by the Culture Climate and Behavior Committee.

Overall, the document presented to the board suggested new consequences for 10 different types of disruptive or violent behavior.

For example, a student found with “any drug other than marijuana in excess of 3 grams” would be a level 5 offense under the proposed changes. “Currently, this infraction begins at a level 4,” according to the Feb. 9 minutes of the Culture, Climate and Behavior Committee. “The deans [are] concerned with drugs outside of marijuana that come in the school in large quantities …that have a devastating effect (i.e., fentanyl). If given out to students in school and taken unsuspectedly, it could lead to extreme harm or death.”

Any “conduct that may indicate gang involvement” is currently treated as a level 2 offense, but the proposed response is a level 3, 4, then 5, if the behavior continues or increases in its severity. The rationale given in the document presented at the April 13 meeting was an “uptick in the variety of gang affiliated activity.”

A statement preceding the request reads: “We continue to battle with the narrative from many that there are not enough or no consequences for students who behave inappropriately.”

The statement continues, “In addition to delving deeper into the work of social skills development, students will have a behavior plan developed to assist in setting intentional times and ways that the student will have intervention services as well as continued monitoring by their PSS Team.”

At press time, the board had not yet voted on the changes, but could take them up as soon as the April 27 meeting.