RALEIGH — Zero tolerance will no longer be tolerated in the Wake County school system, assuming a proposed overhaul of discipline policies - one designed to keep more students in school - is approved.
The school board will hold a preliminary vote Tuesday on a new code of student conduct that school leaders expect to reduce how often and how long students are suspended.
Except for a few offenses such as bringing a firearm to school, for which punishment is mandated by the state, Wake would no longer automatically require a long-term suspension of more than 10 days.
"Safety remains our priority," said John Tedesco, a school board member. "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."
According to Marvin Connelly, Wake's assistant superintendent for student support services, "the pendulum has swung back" since school districts enacted zero tolerance policies after the Columbine High School shootings in 1999.
Under Wake's current policies, principals are required to give long-term suspensions when students are accused of committing some offenses such as engaging in a two-on-one fight.
Connelly cited how an elementary school principal would 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 issue only a short-term suspension of less than 10 days.
In other cases, the proposed code says, principals should first consider alternatives such as in-school punishments before issuing short-term suspensions for offenses such as cursing, skipping class, not following teachers' orders or wearing inappropriate clothing.
It also says long-term suspensions can't be invoked for that level of offense.
"This is the first substantial change to the code of student conduct in 30 years," said school board attorney Ann Majestic.
Complaint gets action
The proposed changes come after the NAACPcited Wake's discipline policies as part of a complaint now being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education.
The group accused Wake of suspending a disproportionately high percentage of minority students. It's part of a complaint that accuses Wake of racial discrimination for eliminating the use of socioeconomic diversity in student assignment.
Tedesco points to how the discipline problemscited by groups such as the NAACP took place under the previous boards. He said the new board should get credit for addressing those issues.
Jason Langberg, an attorney for Advocates for Children's Services, which represents students who have been suspended, acknowledged that Wake has some good ideas with the changes.
But Langberg said the changes don't go far enough.
He said the code also doesn't explicitly spell out that younger students should receive less severe punishments. He said the code should spell out offenses in which students would never be suspended.
Wake school administrators said they first began to study the issue two years ago amid concerns that more than 1,000 students were receiving long-term suspensions each school year.
"When we looked at our data, it is clear we were suspending too many students, and of course we know it resulted in a loss of learning," said Chief Academic Officer Donna Hargens.
As part of the first step in the overhaul, the school board voted in September to change the definition of long-term suspensions. Previously, a long-term suspension automatically kicked a student out for the rest of the school year.
While school administrators worked on the new code of conduct, the board also gave Hargens, who was interim superintendent at the time, the power to reduce individual suspensions. The result is that Wake has meted out only 210 long-term suspensions so far this school year.
Now administrators say they're prepared to introduce a new code that divides offenses into five levels. Most offenses now are subject to short-term suspensions but some such as bullying can be changed to a long-term suspension if the principal finds aggravating factors.
A few offenses such as drug possession would be subject to a long-term suspension but a principal could cite mitigating factors to make it a short-term suspension.
If approved, Connelly said, they'll work between now and June 30 to train principals on the changes.
Unlike many issues that have divided the school board this year, the discipline changes appear to enjoy broad board support.
"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," said school board member Keith Sutton.
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