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Illinois Students

The Illinois School Student Records Act ("ISSRA") was enacted more than 20 years ago, in 1976, and shortly thereafter the firm developed a detailed Student Records policy to facilitate compliance with the then-new requirements. Unlike many such regulatory laws, these statutes saw few changes over the years. One change made a few years ago, and highlighted in the Legislative Review in our Client Newsletter dated September 1, 1995, provided that records on transfer must specify whether a student is in "good standing", i.e., not being suspended or expelled. The State Board of Education (SBE) has developed the requisite "good standing" form for use in the transfer student situation.

In contrast, this year saw enactment of a number of changes in the ISSRA, thanks to part of P.A. 90-590, effective January 1, 1999. Several deal with confidentiality of student records maintained by law enforcement personnel in the schools. Section 2 of the Act is amended to specify that student records do not include such information. Also, Section 5 is amended to provide that the right to inspect student records shall not "impair or limit" the confidentiality of such records. In practical terms, this means that records of law enforcement personnel in the schools are not to be made available to parties otherwise entitled to inspect student records, except by court order.

The new law also makes changes in longstanding provisions dealing with "temporary records." Under current law, such records are not to be maintained beyond their "period of usefulness" or in no case longer than 5 years after the student has transferred, graduated or withdrawn from the school. As of January l, 1999, such temporary records must be maintained for "not less than 5 years" after the student leaves. More important perhaps is the provision that "temporary records" shall not be disclosed except to parents or designees or by court order "notwithstanding the provisions of Section 6." In plain terms, that eliminates all disclosure to other parties including officials of a school to which the student is transferring.

The restrictions concerning "temporary records" are in contrast to the new Section 6.5 which will now permit release of student records to "juvenile authorities" if they submit a written request and certify that the information will not be disclosed to any other party except by law or order of court. The term "juvenile authorities" is broadly defined to include judges, staff members, certain parties to proceedings, probation officer, court appointed advocates, placement providers, authorized military personnel and others. The latter provision is a part of a recent push to encourage greater cooperation between schools and law enforcement authorities commencing with enactment of the 1994 law requiring that schools adopt policies for Reciprocal Reporting.

Student Behavior

In recent years, much attention has been focused upon the state of student discipline, and means for improvement. One aspect of this effort has been a call for more emphasis upon character education. (One program recently adopted by the Chicago Schools calls for instruction in some 20 elements of good character.) Inevitably, the legislature had to get into the act. This year they added a requirement that instruction be provided in "respect" and "discipline" (P.A. 90-620, effective July 10, 1998) to Article 27 of The School Code, a voluminous compendium of curricular subject matter mandating instruction in widely varying areas from sex education to celebration of Arbor Day. Article 27 already mandates instruction in "patriotism" (Section 27-3) and "honesty, kindness, justice and moral courage" (Section 27-12).

Legislators motivated to "do something" about student behavior also created (via House Joint Resolution 53) a 23-member Commission on Truant, At-Risk, Out-of-School, Disruptive and Delinquent Youth. The Commission will include members representing various juvenile agencies as well as one member who is a regional superintendent, one from the School Management Alliance, two teachers' union representatives (one IEA and one IFT), and others. The Governor is to appoint a chairperson. The Commission is to study the systems that impact this student population and make a report on or before December 31, 1998. Among the earlier efforts to address such problems was legislation concerning alternative schools, discussed in our Client Newsletter dated August 30, 1996.

This session, the authority of regional superintendents to develop alternative schools was expanded to allow them to contract with school districts or community colleges to operate such schools (P.A. 90-653, effective July 29, 1998.)

Some changes were also made in Section 10-22.6 of The School Code, dealing with suspension and expulsion of students (P.A. 90-637, effective July 24, 1998). Federal law enacted in 1994 required states to pass laws compelling school districts to expel, for a period of not less than one year, students determined to have brought weapons to schools. Subsequently, in 1995, this Illinois statute was amended to authorize expulsion of such students for the requisite period. However, the Illinois law was made somewhat broader in that expulsion for a period of up to two calendar years may be imposed, on a case by case basis, with no limitation as to the offense. Originally, a "weapon" was defined as a "firearm" as per the federal definition which referred only to an instrument with explosive characteristics. Once again, this new 1998 amendment to the Illinois statute broadens the term "weapon" to include "any other object if used or attempted to be used to cause bodily harm, including but not limited to" knives, brass knuckles or billy clubs or "look alikes" of any weapon covered by the statute. School boards have had authority to modify the expulsion period on a case by case basis. The 1998 law expands this provision to specify that the expulsion period may be modified by the "superintendent, and the superintendent's determination may be modified by the" board. (Emphasis supplied.) As board action in regard to the modification is not mandated, this appears to give the superintendent unilateral authority to modify the expulsion.

New Instructional Mandate

Still another addition to Article 27 is made this term to require instruction about organ donation to students in grades 9 or 10. (P.A. 90-635, effective July 24, 1998.) As in some other Article 27 subjects, students may opt out if the parents file written objections to that particular instruction. Also, this law requires the regional superintendents to provide school districts with "information and data" that may be used in developing such instructional units, but the local board is to determine the "minimum amount of instructional time" that will qualify.

Student Testing

For some time, Illinois school districts have been required to administer and disclose the results of tests under the Illinois Goals and Assessment Program (IGAP) program. Complaints about some aspects of the IGAP testing program resulted this session in two bills modifying testing requirements. One bill (P.A. 90-640, effective January 1, 1999) allows school districts participating in the Reading Improvement Block Grant Program to measure student reading skills by assessment methods other than the reading portion of the IGAP tests. Applications for the grants must include a proposed assessment method which must be approved in order that the district be eligible for funding.

The other bill (P.A. 90-789, effective August 14, 1998) specifies that IGAP testing shall not include evaluations of "attitudes, values and beliefs, or testing of personality, self esteem or self concept." This statute is a response to the furor arising from some such queries on recent tests. (Federal law has long provided that students may not be required to submit to evaluations or surveys concerning mental or psychological problems, sex behavior and attitudes or illegal, anti-social, self-incriminating and demeaning behavior.) This bill also provides that the English language arts segment must include "English grammar", and that the social science test must include "history, geography, civics, economics and government."

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