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.
President Barack Obama recently launched a White House initiative, dubbed Educational Excellence for African-Americans, to reduce discipline disparities that affect black students, among other goals.
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.