An overhaul of Wake County student discipline policies that largely eliminates zero-tolerance punishments could be adopted as soon as this week.
As noted in today's article, the Wake school board will vote Tuesday on a series of changes to the discipline policy with the biggest change being how suspensions would now be issued. School leaders expect the changes will reduce how often and how long students are suspended from school.
The changes appear to enjoy broad board support. Even critics of Wake's current discipline policies acknowledge it's a major change.
“It’s a good start because for years there were no changes,” said Jason Langberg, an attorney for Advocates for Children’s Services, which represents students who have been suspended.
Langberg wants Wake to make even more changes, which I'll get into later in the post.
Longtime Wake school board attorney Ann Majestic called it "the first substantial change to the code of student conduct in 30 years.
Marvin Connelly, Wake's assistant superintendent for student support services, said the pendulum has swung back since zero-tolerance policies were enacted after the Columbine High School shooting in 1999 and other later events.
Let's start with this handout from Tuesday's school board work session that lists the current discipline policies and the proposed new ones.
Policy 6400 would now become the school board's basic statement of philosophy on discipline.
Policy 6405, which is based on a state law, would go from being a R&P to policy.
But the heart of the changes is the new Policy 6410, the Code of Student Conduct. One difference is that various standalone policies have all been put into the new code.
The biggest difference in the new Code of Student Conduct is the leveling system which places infractions on five tiers. With the exception of some offenses that are required by state law to result in long-term suspensions, no other infractions are required to get that punishment.
Level I offenses can result in up to a short-term suspension. but principals would be urged to consider other in-school interventions.
Examples of Level I offenses include violating the dress code, using inappropriate language, gambling and using tobacco. The code says no Level I offense can result in a long-term suspension.
Among the Level I offenses is the category of disrespect/non-compliance with school employee directions. Examples can include showing disrespect, being repeatedly tardy and skipping class. According to a report done by Langberg, 19 Wake students received long-term suspensions under this section last school year.
There are questions about some Level I offenses.
School board member Ann Majestic was concerned that cheating is a Level I offense, which would imply that no long-term suspension could be issued. During last week's board meeting, Connelly said a student could receive a LTS for cheating if, for instance, he got all the answers to an exam ahead of time and shared it with the whole school.
I haven't gotten an answer back from Majestic or Connelly about this apparent discrepancy about possible punishments for cheating.
Board members also want revisions for the wording on the Level I offense of use of electronic devices. They want more clarity about when they can be used on campus. The draft policy says these devices, such as cell phones, can't be in the on position during the instructional day.
Level II offenses may warrant short-term suspensions but can be upgraded to long-term suspensions if the principal can cite aggravating factors. Examples of Level II offenses include misconduct on a school bus, disturbing the class, theft, bullying, sexual harassment, fighting, gang activity and possessing a weapon (not including firearms).
In particular, this could have a big change on how many students receive long-term suspensions for weapons possession.
Connelly said an elementary school principal would currently be required to give a long-term suspension if a student accidentally brought his father’s book bag to school and a knife was found inside. He said the new policy would allow the principal to only issue a short-term suspension.
School board member John Tedesco brought up an example of a case in Wake where a Boy Scout faced a long-term suspension because he had brought a knife to school with him. Tedesco said the student, who was learning how to use the knife to open cans, forgot he had it on him.
Level III offenses are those that may warrant a long-term suspension but could be reduced to a shot-term suspension if the principal finds mitigating factors. Examples here include possession of alcohol or narcotics, assault on a student and assault on a school employee without inflecting serious injury.
As you can see, this put a lot of weight on principals to decide when to suspend and when to upgrade or downgrade an offense. That was a concern raised by school board member Kevin Hill, a former principal who noted the wide range of experience among principals.
Connelly said they would provide training to principals between now and June 30 on the new policies. Plus, he said they'd do an annual review on key policies.
Level IV offenses are those whose punishments are required by the state and can keep students out for a full year. Examples of these offenses include assault on a school employee resulting in serous injury, possession of a firearm or explosive device and making a bomb threat.
Level V is what Wake can do to justify expelling a student who is age 14 or older.
Tedesco hailed the changes as still ensuring that schools are safe while also allowing more students to stay in school and hopefully graduate.
“Safety remains our priority,” Tedesco said. “But we have to realize that, except for the extremely violent cases, part of being a child is making mistakes. When they make mistakes, we want to work with them instead of dooming them for the rest of their lives. When they’re suspended for the rest of the school year, they fall behind and drop out and go into the school-to-prison pipeline.”
School board member Keith Sutton, who along with Tedesco have been the most outspoken supporters of ending zero-tolerance policies, is also on board with the changes.
“This goes a long way toward striking a good balance on maintaining safety in schools and raising student achievement by giving all children a chance to learn,” Sutton said.
Tuesday's vote is supposed to be the first of two readings but Tedesco said he'd like to waive second reading and approve it then.
Langberg is against approving on only one vote. He wants to use the time between the first and second readings to get additional changes into the policies.
Langberg said there wasn’t enough community input in the changes.
Langberg said the code also doesn’t explicitly spell out that younger students should receive less severe punishments. He said the code should also spell out offenses in which students would never be suspended.
Moving beyond what's proposed, Langberg says Wake isn't addressing other issues that ACS has raised about school resource officers such as their training, their use of force on students, their questioning of students and their referrals of students to the court system.
Tedesco notes that the school board has asked Russ Smith, Wake's senior director of school security, to discuss the memorandum of understanding that Wake has with the different law enforcement agencies that provide SROs.
Wake's discipline policies have been cited in the federal civil rights complaint filed against Wake. Before the tornado damage closed Moore Square temporarily, the YWCA of the Greater Triangle had planned to protest Wake's "systemic racism" in its discipline policies at Friday's Stand Against Racism Day rally.
Tedesco said these groups aren't giving the school board enough credit for addressing discipline issues that weren't resolved by the old board. He pointed to this proposed overhaul and how long-term suspensions are sharply down this school year. Wake had 210 long-term suspensions as of April 18 compared to 837 all of last school year and more than 1,000 in prior years.
"We're reversing systemic racism in minority placement in advanced classes, in the student discipline process and the school-to-prison pipeline," Tedesco said.