Wake County principals are getting a stronger reminder from school leaders that they should think about the impact suspensions will have on students before keeping them out of school.
The Wake County school board approved Tuesday changes in the Code of Student Conduct that govern how schools handle student discipline. The changes range from clarifying how suspensions are to be handled for low-level infractions to including additional wording that encourages the use of alternatives to out-of-school suspensions.
School leaders say the changes reflect how they want to keep schools safe but give students an opportunity to still be in a position where they can get an education. For instance, many schools have alternative learning centers where students can go rather than be suspended.
“The goal is to try to shift our approach from punishment-based discipline to discipline by engagement,” said school board member Jim Martin, who chairs the policy committee that reviewed the changes. “If you simply suspend a student, that takes a student out of an educational setting.”
Wake County has been under a federal investigation since 2010 that is looking into whether the district’s discipline policies and practices discriminate against African-American students on the basis of race. Activists have charged that Wake has perpetuated a school-to-prison pipeline for minority students.
Wake has made multiple changes to the Code of Student Conduct in recent years. The number of suspensions has dropped 19 percent since 2011.
Geraldine Alshamy, a community activist, told school board members Tuesday the changes don’t go far enough because they allow principals to issue suspensions in some cases where she said they should not be allowed. She cited how African-American students still account for the majority of Wake students who are suspended and referred to the adult court system.
“The language is still giving folks an opportunity to use discretion, which puts us in the same place we’re in,” she said.
The latest revision opens the policy with a section about how the district “fully endorses and adopts” the guiding principles from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2014 resource guide for school discipline. According to the guide, schools should use out-of-school suspensions as a last resort and reserve them for serious infractions.
The policy’s preamble also talks about how the Code of Student Conduct is intended to “encourage the use of behavioral supports and non-disciplinary interventions as alternatives to exclusionary discipline.”
There’s also a new section about the role students, parents and community partners play in promoting positive school climates.
The policy includes new wording telling principals they should consider that suspensions have a disproportionate effect on students on a block schedule. Most high schools use a block schedule that cram a year-long class into a semester, so missing time has more impact.
There’s also new wording on dealing with Level I offenses, including non-compliance and disrespect toward school employees, inappropriate dress and inappropriate language.
The new wording says Level I offenses “should result in in-school interventions rather than out-of-school suspensions” instead of saying “should generally.”
Out-of-school suspensions for two days are still allowed for Level I offenses but only after a student has had at least two in-school interventions during the school year and a “persistent pattern” of violations.
Currently, school leaders can suspend a student who has at least three Level I infractions in the same semester, and in-school interventions have been used. But schools have interpreted the wording differently, with some suspending for the same infraction done three times and others suspending for any three Level I offenses.
Students who refuse to participate in the in-school alternatives can be suspended.
The policy also updates the wording on prohibited electronic devices to drop references to antiquated devices such as beepers and CD players. Martin said it brings that wording to the 21st Century.