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Excerpted From: James Naughton, The School FOIA Project: Uncovering Racial Disparities in School Discipline and How to Respond, 52 Loyola University Chicago Law Journal 1045 (Summer, 2021) (258 Footnotes) (Full Document)
The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed in 1966 under the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. The Act, codified under 5 U.S.C. § 552, established a presumption that the public have access to federal information upon request. In President Johnson's statement upon signing the senate bill into law, he stated, “This legislation springs from one of our most essential principles: a democracy works best when the people have all the information that the security of the Nation permits.”
The state of Illinois beat the federal government by nine years as it had already passed the State Records Act in 1957, which allowed for the inspection of state records. In 1984, the Illinois legislature codified a version of the federal FOIA law, declaring it to be the exclusive state statute on freedom of information. In this Article, I argue for an expanded use of the Illinois FOIA by educational advocates in uncovering racial disparities in school discipline. School discipline has a deleterious impact on students of color, creating a feeder into the school-to-prison pipeline, reducing rates of high school graduation, and resulting in a higher risk of involvement with the juvenile justice system.
The Article will review the state of FOIA laws in Illinois as it relates to educational institutions. It will also provide a blueprint for educational advocates to use Illinois's FOIA law to request information from school districts to explore whether racial disparities in discipline exist. As a case study, this Article will highlight lessons learned from the author's experience with requesting disciplinary information from his local school district and include the raw and analyzed data from a recent FOIA request. Lastly, this Article will provide recommendations on how to address race-based discrimination in school districts using FOIA information.
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The way forward is to start utilizing the tools that we have as education advocates and community members to make our voices heard. It can start with a simple FOIA request from a student, a parent, or a taxpayer and turn into a movement to halt discriminatory discipline or remedy some other issue in education. The way forward is also filled with frustration as FOIA requests are frequently turned down by school districts. A student, an advocate, or a parent with a meaningful understanding of FOIA laws can make lasting change in their school district.
It is also important to listen to and learn from the students who experience these disparities every day. Never should the lead be thrust upon them to make change, but if the students organize and unite for change, then it is our duty as advocates, parents, and taxpayers to support them.
Through conversations with school administrators, districts, and other educational professionals, we can collaborate to implement restorative justice. We can work on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. We can help our students, regardless of the color of their skin, have a brighter future.
We stand at a moment in history where innumerable voices are rightfully declaring that Black lives matter. While the Illinois FOIA might not be the flashiest way to generate change, it has proven effective. As education advocates searching for equity for Black and brown children in K-12 education, the Illinois FOIA has become another hammer in our tool box. Let's use it to dismantle systemic racism in our schools, smash the school-to-prison pipeline, and build equity.
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