U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin Wednesday chaired the first federal hearing looking at the relationship between schools and the criminal justice system. The hearing follows a recent change in Illinois law prompted by an attack on an Elgin teacher and subsequent Daily Herald investigation.
Since the 1990s, Durbin's office noted, many students nationwide have been pushed out of the classroom and into the courts for relatively minor, nonviolent offenses. Concerns about school violence and a growing awareness of bullying led many schools to hire police and institute "zero-tolerance" policies which in turn have resulted in an increase in suspensions, expulsions, and in-school arrests.
Durbin, a Springfield Democrat, questioned how exactly and why the culture of schools has changed so much over the years.
"Is there a difference in the relationship between schools and families and teachers?" Durbin asked. "Is there a difference in the threat to the safety and order in schools?"
Durbin noted there "can be a positive interaction between the justice system and education," but questioned "how to deal with changes in circumstances."
Among those testifying at the hearing were Deb Delisle, assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education; Melodee Hanes, acting administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; and Edward Ward, youth leader of Blocks Together, Chicago.
Hanes said the Office of Juvenile Justice has learned that the minute a child sets foot in the juvenile justice system his or her chances of being an adult offender go up 50 percent.
"Their chances of completing their education, their chances in life in general diminish significantly," Hanes said.
She spoke of the need at the federal level to provide guidance for school districts across the country in disciplining students, and expressed hopes in "steering program dollars that find alternatives to detention."
"It's our mission that when children come into contact with the juvenile justice system, it's fair," she said.
The hearing comes just a few months after Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation allowing police and schools to better share information about potentially dangerous students.
State Sen. John Millner, a Carol Stream Republican, and State Rep. Carol Sente, a Vernon Hills Democrat, sponsored the bill to prevent attacks like that on Carolyn Gilbert, a family and consumer science teacher who was stabbed by a student while she was alone with him in a classroom. Gilbert lost an eye in the attack but is back teaching at Elgin High.
The law is the result of a Daily Herald investigation that found while many school districts have "reciprocal reporting" agreements with police departments, few were operating as intended. And the agreements, while suggested in the state's school code, were not required.
Gilbert's attacker, then-16-year-old Angel Facio, was under investigation for a previous violent attack, a sexual assault on an 8-year-old girl. Officials in Elgin Area School District U-46 were unaware of the police investigation before the Jan. 18, 2008, attack on Gilbert.
The new law allows for information to be shared orally. Details, however, may not be included in the student's official school record or public record.
At the time of the signing, Mundelein Police Chief Ray Rose, who was part of a committee that drafted the legislation, said the expectations that school is a safe place have worn away. By sharing information, school districts, state legislators and police "recognize that when someone leaves the school or someone leaves the street and enters the school, behaviors are not left at the door," Rose said.
Durbin spokesman Max Gleischman said the senator's office is currently examining the hearing testimony and some of the recommendations "to see what options are for next steps."