Reaching a compromise in Wake County’s suspension policy

Posted by T. Keung Hui on December 11, 2013 

The thought of preventing principals from giving out-of-school suspensions to students who mouth off at teachers was enough to get Wake County school board members to scale back the scope of proposed changes to the Code of Student Conduct.

Originally, administrators had proposed changing the Code of Student Conduct so that a principal could give an out-of-school suspension for a Level I violation only if the student committed the same violation three times in a semester or refused to participate in an alternative intervention. Examples of Level I violations include not following a teacher’s orders, showing disrespect, skipping class and using inappropriate language.

But as noted in today’s article, the policy was revised at Tuesday’s policy committee meeting to say that principals could give a suspension on the first or second violation if they find aggravating circumstances and consult with their area superintendent. The committee also agreed to revise the wording to say that the third violation could be for any Level I offense and not necessarily for the same violation.

School board member Kevin Hill, a former principal, raised the first concern Tuesday with the staff proposal. Hill said he has issues with taking suspensions off the table.

“There’s a gray area involved with discipline,” Hill said. “I just feel that it could infer a lack of support for principals and teachers.”

Hill said he could support the policy if it was changed from the same three Level I violations to any three Level I violations.

Hill said as a principal he’d want that option for that one out of 50 or one out of 100 situation where he‘d not want the child back in school the next day for a Level I violation.

School board member Tom Benton, also a retired principal, said he was concerned about the lack of flexibility for principals. He said he considered Level I violations of non-compliance, disrespect and inappropriate language to be serious enough violations that they could warrant a suspension on the first or second offense.

Benton said he’s yet to see any data showing that a significant number of students are receiving suspensions on Level I offenses for first or second-time violations.

But board member Jim Martin said that there can be a lot of differences in how non-compliance is cited by a teacher. He said that they’d be “lying” if they ignored that there’s a racial component into how some teachers write up students for the violation and not others.

Martin said that suspensions can impact a student when it comes to college admissions and financial aid.

There are some times where a kids needs discipline,” Martin said. “But this is not something that should necessarily go up in your financial aid form.”

But board member Bill Fletcher said that improving student behavior and having safety in school is more important than avoiding the consequence of having a suspension appear on a financial aid form.

Fletcher objected to not letting students be suspended for disrespect, non-compliance or inappropriate language.

“This gives students carte blanche to question the heritage of a teacher without any consequence outside the school building,” Fletcher said of the staff proposal.

Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore said that when she was a high school principal they would write notes to schools saying that a student was a good kid to help explain any suspensions. She said there also working on a policy that would allow students to get short-term suspensions expunged from their records.

Benton resumed his concerns about non-compliance, disrespect and inappropriate language being different than other Level I offenses. He said it’s a question of maintaining climates that are conducive to student learning.

“If you’re going to have a student tell a teacher he’s not going to do what you want to do,” Benton said. “If you’re not careful, that culture could go throughout the school that students don’t have to do what adults tell them to do.”

Amid the board concerns, new Chief of Staff Marvin Connelly and Superintendent Jim Merrill pitched the idea of modifying the policy to allow suspensions for the first and second offense if a principal could cite aggravating circumstances and consulted with an an area superintendent.

The wording revision to three violations of any Level I offense instead of the same one three time was also inserted.

The board members present ultimately voted 7-1 to send the policy with the wording changes to the full board on first reading. Only Benton voted no.

Benton said that he didn’t want to give the impression he supported suspending students. For instance, he questioned statistics handed out by staff showing that 137 students had received suspensions from August through mid-November for skipping class.

“I don’t want people to think I want to suspend kids,” Benton said as he pointed to the suspensions for skipping class. “That does bother me.”

Connelly said that some schools use a rubric where a suspension is automatically given on the third violation.

After the vote, Hill and board member Susan Evans said the revised wording was a compromise. Hill said it recognizes the grey area in discipline issues while providing guidance to the large number of new principals in Wake.

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