Wake Ed

Wake County looking at “three strikes” rule for some school violations

The Wake County school system and the New York City Public Schools have some things in common, such as being among the largest school systems in the nation.

But they could also share another thing in common in terms of promoting in-school consequences as opposed to out-of-school suspensions for what are considered less serious infractions such as skipping class and not following a teacher’s orders. As noted in today’s article, Wake is considering a proposal to restrict the use of out-of-school suspensions for Level I infractions that would basically give students “three strikes.”

Under the proposed revision to the Code of Student Conduct, 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 the alternative interventions.

Wake’s proposal looks a lot like New York City’s Discipline Code that was revised in the 2012-13 school year to basically ban out-of-school suspensions for less serious infractions. New York revised its discipline code after complaints that too many studemts are suspended.

Like Wake’s proposal, New York says that students who commit Level I infractions are to be given alternative disciplinary responses before an out-of-school suspension could be sought for violating the same offense three times in a semester.

Wake is considering this new step because the last major change it made in 2011 to reduce suspensions didn’t fully work out as planned. Suspensions have gone down overall but students are still being suspended for things such as violating the dress code.

In 2011, the school board overhauled the Code of Student Conduct to divide offenses into five levels, with Level I being considered “less serious.” There are 10 Level I infractions: school class/attendance, noncompliance, disrespect, inappropriate language, electronic devices, tobacco, inappropriate dress, trespassing, misconduct on school vehicle and gambling.

The policy says that Level I violations should generally result in in-school interventions instead of out-of-school suspensions. Those alternatives include a behavior contract, peer mediation, in-school suspension, conflict resolution, detention, restitution, loss of privileges, and school or community service.

The out-of-school suspensions for Level I offenses was capped at two days.

Current policy also says that “out of school suspension should be used as a last resort” for skipping class or being tardy. The idea here is that suspending a student who is cutting school is not the best approach.

But a report in August from Advocates for Children’s Services found that Wake issued 3,517 short-term suspensions for Level I offenses in the 2011-12 school year. The Level I offense with the most suspensions – 1,222 – was for school attendance.

“The district continues to suspend students for minor misbehavior that could be better dealt with through alternative means of behavior management,” according to the report from Advocates for Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

The revised Code of Student Conduct should make it harder to issue those Level I suspensions. School board Chairman Keith Sutton said that the alternatives schools would have to use would probably deal more effectively with Level I offenses than sending the student home for two days.

“It will significantly reduce the number of suspensions and impact the culture as administrators deal with discipline at the building level,” Sutton said. “It will be a positive change.”

Since 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has been investigating a complaint filed by the state NAACP that Wake disproportionately suspends minority students. But Sutton said the latest changes would have been proposed even without the OCR probe.

The school board’s policy committee was scheduled to review the changes Oct. 28 but ran out of time that day. Sutton said that the committee may deal with it at its Dec. 10 meeting. It’s part of a process that could ultimately result in the changes going into effect for the 2014-15 school year.

The proposal has got supporters and detractors.

Qasimya Wideman, a member of NC HEAT, a youth group that has called for a moratorium on out-of-school suspensions for Level I offenses, said the proposed changes are a step in the right direction.

“It’s important that we stop suspending kids for stupid stuff like violating the dress code or skipping class,” said Wideman, 18, a senior at Cary High School. “We should all start demanding higher standards before we remove kids from the education environment.”

Wideman said that the greater focus on restorative justice than suspensions would be better for the students involved.

But Micheal Petrilli, executive vice presidnet of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said he’s concerned that schools may be over-reacting, as some did following school shootings that led to zero-tolerance policies. Those rules mandated suspensions without exceptions.

“We need to be careful not to let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction,” Petrilli said. “I understand the arguments for why we should be reducing suspensions. But the last thing we need to do is to undermine the authority of teachers.”