At this time last year, I told you about the important work the Code of Student Conduct Task Force had begun to improve the equity and effectiveness of Durham Public Schools discipline policies and procedures. The Code, found in District Policy 4301, had been tweaked and updated over the years, but it had been a long time since it had been thoroughly vetted – and never before by a large, diverse panel of 47 Durham community members.
It was such a massive undertaking that the task force told me in no uncertain terms that a few months wouldn’t be enough. If DPS wanted to make lasting, sensible changes in the Code of Student Conduct that would make our schools safer and our discipline more fair, the task force wanted more time. We happily gave it to them. This Thursday, Dec. 10, their recommendations will be presented to the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.
That will be a massive milestone that the task force reaches, but it will not be the end of the effort to foster an improved student climate that supports student learning in every school. Even after the school board deliberates the task force’s recommendations, it will take time to put all the pieces in place for the 2016-17 school year. Our goal is by that time to have a set of guidelines for classroom and academic behavior that are fair, well communicated, and consistently enforced, and a menu of options for principals to use in determining appropriate consequences when students break the rules.
I was discussing the task force’s work with one of our administrators recently, who expressed concerns that this was all necessary but insufficient: “What we need to do, Dr. L’Homme, is change the culture.”
I understand where that administrator is coming from. There are principles of character that every child must learn, in school and at home. The character education traits Durham Public Schools promotes are irreplaceable: self-discipline, respect, honesty, kindness, responsibility, fairness, courage, perseverance and citizenship. Our principals, teachers and staff must provide a safe learning environment for every student. Sometimes, students who forget these traits disrupt the school for everyone else and action must be taken.
But refining a consistent Code of Student Conduct is part of building that stronger school culture. Trust, accountability and transparency are keys to fostering a stronger partnership between home and school. Also, the actions we take to discipline our students and maintain order in our schools must benefit the offender as well as the school community. For example, sometimes suspensions are necessary, but every time we suspend a child we are also disconnecting them from our influence when we need to build strong character. That is why we have programs and strategies ranging from peer mediation to suspension alternatives such as Second Chance Academy and Lakeview School.
I am grateful to the parents, administrators, teachers, counselors, court officials and community volunteers who gathered regularly for a year of hard questions and hard work in order to shore up one part of our foundation. The Code of Student Conduct Task Force is completing a vital mission – but the work continues for our district, schools and families.