Durham News: Opinion

New code of conduct will make Durham schools fairer

In Durham Public Schools, we know that we cannot separate high student achievement and safe, orderly, and caring learning environments. We must partner with our families to ensure that discipline is fair and proportionate. We have to do right by all of our students – the ones who are affected by disruptions and misbehavior, and the ones who need to be supported in making better choices for themselves and their classmates.

It’s all about equity. If the rules for classroom and academic behavior are fair, well communicated and enforced with an emphasis on preparing every child for the future, then expectations will be clear and our students will be better focused on preparing for graduation, college and career.

Those rules are spelled out in the Code of Student Conduct, found in district policy 4301 on the Durham Public Schools website at dpsnc.net. The code lists violations from cheating and plagiarism to harassment and possession of controlled substances, and describes the procedures our schools and district must follow when a student runs afoul of the code. The Code of Student Conduct has been tweaked and revised frequently for years – but is it a policy that is consistently implemented in each school to benefit our entire school community?

To find out, in February a new Task Force on the Code of Student Conduct began a thorough review. The task force is made up of parents, members of the faith-based community and nonprofits, a superior court judge, district administrators, teachers of students with special needs and more – 39 community members strong and growing. Their mission is to identify whether our discipline policies set high expectations, support teaching and learning, involve families and students working together with educators, and maintain due process and appropriate procedures for students with disabilities.

I am already impressed with how thorough and serious the task force members are. They have committed to work through June 2016 on a comprehensive review of the code while suggesting important short-term revisions that can be put into place next school year. They will compare us to exemplary school districts across the nation as well as the guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education in January 2014.

They have also identified a shortcoming in the current code: it seems to focus more on violations rather than what we, as a school district and community, positively believe and want for our students. It lists what students must not do; it does not also affirm who we want our students to become.

Educators face a dilemma and an opportunity when we talk about school discipline. Teachers, principals and district administrators – partnered with families – are responsible for the academic and social growth of an entire school community. As a necessity, we are sensitive to classroom and school disruption. Our schools must be orderly. Every child deserves a great teacher in a safe, disciplined classroom.

The root word of “discipline” is the Latin disciplus, or “learner,” which evolved into the Latin word disciplina, or “instruction, knowledge.” Word meanings change over time; “discipline” now means “the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.” Somewhere in our history we took the learning out of discipline – and without learning, we are not fulfilling our mission as a school system.

The Code of Student Conduct Task Force will hold several community meetings in the coming year. It seeks to represent the beliefs and perspectives of students, families and citizens from across Durham County to improve every school and support every student, before bringing its recommendations to the Durham Public Schools Board of Education. I convened this task force because I know that our schools can be fairer, more equitable, and more effective in promoting a safe and positive learning environment. Based on its early work, I could not be more optimistic about the result.

Bert L’Homme is the superintendent of the Durham Public Schools.