On a spring morning last semester, a teenage girl wound up in the nurse's office at Hinsdale South High School, throwing up after smoking marijuana before school. Three other students smoked pot with her, she told the dean.
All four got in trouble — but not the same trouble.
Two girls were suspended for five days. One boy was questioned but denied smoking marijuana, and district records show he wasn't suspended. But the other boy — the only black student among the four — was arrested as well as suspended for seven days. He pleaded guilty to a drug paraphernalia charge — an ordinance violation that could affect the rest of his life.
The differences in discipline that day at Hinsdale South aren't uncommon, a Tribune investigation found.
The newspaper's review of federal data as well as school, police and court records shows inconsistent and sometimes arbitrary discipline for the same or similar offenses at Chicago-area schools. The cases often involve drugs, drinking, smoking cigarettes, peddling prescription drugs or fighting and stealing.
The inconsistencies affect white students, too, the Tribune found, but minority students, particularly blacks, are more likely to be reported to police — a step more serious than a suspension that is handled confidentially at school.
In Hinsdale Township High School District 86, for example, blacks made up about 8 percent of enrollment in 2009-10. But 21 percent of those referred to police in connection with disciplinary incidents that year were black, according to federal data. Several districts had larger disparities.
"School officials do not determine whether to impose school disciplinary consequences based on a student's race, ethnicity or gender," District 86 Superintendent Nicholas Wahl said in a written response to the Tribune's questions.
A pattern of unequal treatment shows up across the Chicago region, according to federal data provided by districts for the 2009-10 school year. The issue has sparked attention around the country as well.
Last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center highlighted disparate discipline of black students in several Florida school districts, including youths suspended or arrested for minor infractions at school, and the center filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.
And a national study released at the same time by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the University of California at Los Angeles showed that Illinois had the highest rate of suspending black students in 2009-10.
The issue is coming to light more than ever because for the first time, police referrals were included in the most recent Department of Education civil rights data collection. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has long pushed for the information to be made public, said Beth Glenn, the group's national educator director.
Glenn said studies show that race is the strongest predictor of getting a harsh punishment at school, trumping factors such as disciplinary history, academic record and poverty.
At school, "individual biases and decision-making get rolled up into an institutional bias," Glenn said, with black males bearing the brunt of that mindset. "The threat that a person perceives from a black male child is stronger and more visceral, and they are perceived to be more dangerous than a child of Asian descent or a white child."
Blacks, Hispanics fare worse
The Tribune focused on a smaller subset of student discipline cases — referrals to law enforcement — because of the consequences when charges are filed and records become public. Drug convictions, in particular, can disqualify young people from getting college financial aid. State criminal charges and even municipal ordinance violations related to drugs or alcohol can block them from jobs.
Because of reporting holes by districts, it's difficult to know how many students are referred to police after getting in trouble at school, but federal figures are almost certainly understated.
The Tribune found that some local districts reported zero law enforcement referrals to the federal agency even though local police records indicate otherwise. Chicago Public Schools reported 165 such referrals in 2009-10, though police records show thousands of school-related cases were logged during that period.
The Tribune reviewed police referral data reported by 69 of the 86 high school-only and K-12 districts in the Chicago region.
Forty of the districts showed a disproportionate share of black or Hispanic students referred to the police.
Large disparities showed up in CPS as well as in many suburban districts.
CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said she was concerned by the racial disparities evident in the referral data, comparing the numbers to a similar trend among students who are suspended and expelled. The district is committed to reversing those trends, she said, "because at the end of the day, we want kids to be in the classroom with their teachers. They don't belong in a jail cell and they don't belong on the street."
In Palatine-based Township High School District 211, the largest high school district in the state, 805 students were reported to law enforcement, federal data show, with blacks and Hispanics disproportionately represented in that group.
"We are concerned about that," said Associate Superintendent Daniel Cates.
Cates said the district has monthly meetings to review discipline data, looking closely at the number of days students are suspended for various infractions.
"I think there is a great crossover between students who are economically disadvantaged and the students seen in our discipline program," he said.
School officials also are tracking discipline data in south Cook County's Bremen Community High School District 228, where the district reported that all students referred to law enforcement were black — 65 — though blacks made up only about 38 percent of enrollment.
Assistant Superintendent Daniel Goggins questioned the accuracy of the figures provided by his district, saying he knows of white students who have been referred, but acknowledged that blacks are disproportionately suspended.
"This is not only a problem for District 228. ... It is an epidemic across the country," Goggins said.
The district has launched a program that is dramatically reducing suspensions, he said, with a goal of decreasing the percentage of minority students suspended.
Likewise, Niles Township High School District 219 officials said they are committed to "reducing the disproportionately high number of minority students involved in disciplinary cases." Black and Hispanics made up the vast majority of law enforcement referrals reported, though they represented less than 20 percent of enrollment that year, data show.
District 219 officials noted that only 40 students were referred to law enforcement, less than 1 percent of total enrollment, and that some of those students were able to go to a youthful offender court that diverts them from the regular court system.
In Kane County, some parents have complained about what they perceive as uneven discipline at Geneva High School, said Principal Thomas Rogers.
"Every community believes the football player or the star pitcher are being favored. It is human nature that people are going to think there is favoritism shown to certain people. But we don't do that," Rogers said.
The high school is "nondiverse" and has only a handful of black students, Rogers said, and "there is no targeting of those students when it comes to this situation."
Law enforcement referral data reported to the federal government for Geneva High School do not show disparate treatment of minorities, though Geneva Unit District 304 as a whole shows a disproportionate share of black and Hispanic students referred to law enforcement.
`A wrong message'
In Hinsdale District 86, concern about discipline disparities arose more than two years ago when school board member Dianne Barrett was reviewing suspension reports provided to the board. She noticed that "suspension days vary for the same offense and if and when the Police Department is called," according to minutes from a December 2009 board meeting. She said "she would like equal treatment for offenses."
Barrett, who has been in a legal fight with the district over access to public records, recently told the Tribune that the board never pursued her concerns.
"It's really about consistency and fairness to all kids," Barrett said.
The Hinsdale district provided data to the Tribune on almost 3,000 incidents that led to suspensions at Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central since 2005. That data showed that black students made up about 34 percent of the cases in which police were notified — at least four times their representation in district enrollment. Hispanic youths made up almost 12 percent of the cases in which police were notified — roughly double their representation in the district.
This year, one of those black students was a popular athlete and graduate of the Class of 2012.
He was charged by Darien police in April of his senior year with unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia, a municipal ordinance violation. He was one of the four students involved in the incident that led to the teen getting sick and going to the nurse's office at Hinsdale South.
The athlete was named in the Darien arrest report because he was an adult at the time. He said in an interview with the Tribune that he wasn't the only one who bought and smoked marijuana off-campus on that morning, a late-arrival day for students — that he and the three other white students did it "collaboratively."
But he was the only one charged after a pipe for smoking marijuana was found in his car.
"I can't say if it was because I was black or not," he said, adding that the school takes drugs seriously and, "with drugs, you are going to get in trouble at Hinsdale South no matter who you are."
At the same time, he said, "I had to go through way more than (the other three students) had to go through. … It makes no sense to me."
The punished athlete got court supervision — which is not a conviction but shows up in court records — and paid a $210 fine, court records show.
Darien police Chief Ernest Brown said he didn't know all the circumstances that led to the arrest of just one of the four students involved. But in general, Brown pointed out the difficulty of making a case against students who don't have drugs or drug paraphernalia in their possession, even if they look or act like they've smoked pot.
"The idea of arresting somebody for something they've already ingested is not likely to happen," he said. "That (case) would be next to impossible. There is no state's attorney who would accept it."
The chief said officer discretion plays a role in who is — or isn't — charged, and a variety of factors can come into play. But "the fact of the matter is that certainly from a law enforcement perspective, we always need to remind ourselves to make sure our decision-making is fair and unbiased," Brown said.
The arrest report shows that the girl who got sick told high school Dean Alex Bitto that there "might be a small amount of cannabis in her locker, but it was not hers and has been there for a while. She stated that it was a friend of hers."
There is no mention in the report of whether the girl's locker was searched — a common practice when drugs are involved. However, the black athlete's car was searched in the student parking lot. A school administrator said the other boy's body and hands smelled of marijuana, but the student did not admit smoking, according to the report.
The April 11 arrest report states that the school disciplined "each of the students in this incident," but records provided by the Hinsdale district show that only three students received drug-related suspensions that day — a black male and two female white students. The other boy's mother said she would take her son for a drug test and report back the results, but whether she followed through is not revealed in the record.
Superintendent Wahl declined to provide further details, writing to the Tribune: "The school district cannot comment on any specific student or discipline matter."
Tribune reporter Joel Hood contributed.