Changes on Tap for Wake Student Discipline Policies

The Wake County Board of Education may complete major revisions to its student discipline policies at its meeting Tuesday.

These policy changes are designed to prevent long-term suspensions for relatively minor infractions. The new system has five levels for violating school policies, with the most common discipline issues requiring in-school suspension.

Last school year the school board temporarily stopped enforcing its existing suspension policy in order to keep non-violent students in school.

“We’ve gone such a way to ensure our schools remain safe,” said Board Vice-Chair John Tedesco. “When students make mistakes, those mistakes should not be too punitive so that it impacts their long-term academic success.”

The number of suspensions dropped in the 2010-11 school year. Meanwhile, the board worked with its attorney Ann Majestic of Tharrington Smith to redraw the suspension and due process policies and procedures.

At the last board meeting June 21, the school board approved the discipline policy changes on a first reading but overwhelmingly shot down a waiver of a second reading. Waiving the second reading would have been necessary to enact the new policy that night.

Pending state legislation requires many of the changes that the board has been working on. During the June 21 meeting, Majestic emphasized that the board would have to pass revisions and print student handbooks by July 11 to comply with the legislation.

The year-round school year began Monday.

But board members from both parties expressed concern that rushing through the changes would do a disservice to students.

“In this case we have such an opportunity,” Tedesco said on June 21. “As you [board attorney Majestic] have stated before, this is the most substantial change that’s been made [to the discipline policy] in 30 years. To see that fall on the back burner would be disappointing to myself and maybe some of my colleagues.”

Tedesco joined board members Carolyn Morrison, Kevin Hill, Debra Goldman and Anne McLaurin in voting against waiving the second reading.

Board member Keith Sutton voted to waive the second reading.

“I just can’t see opening school, having school start and not having a policy,” Sutton said during the meeting. “I think it’s irresponsible.”

While the revisions are under consideration, the current discipline and due process policies remain in effect along with the temporary stay on some long-term suspensions. Majestic does not foresee that the district will incur any penalties for not having the new policies in place July 11.

“The truth is a lot of school systems will have a hard time being on time with this,” she said.

Majestic also represents the school boards of Alamance and Moore County and the Durham Public Schools.

What are the changes?
Taking cues from district staff, Majestic has completely restructured the system of punishments into five levels.

The new system does away with mandatory long-term suspensions except in cases where federal or state law dictates them.

Principals must consider mitigating or aggravating factors in each case.

A hearing panel would review all cases of long-term suspension and certain reductions in sentence from long-term to short-term suspension. Under the latest version of the revisions, the three-member panel would likely be staffed with retired teachers and administrators.

Level 1 violations include disrespect, inappropriate language, using electronic devices during the school day, trespassing, smoking, gambling and misconduct on a school vehicle. Generally such infractions would be handled with in-school interventions such as detentions or calls home.

Level 2 violations range widely, from cheating and plagiarism to fighting, possession of a weapon (other than a firearm) and gang activity. These infractions may result in short-term suspension. Principals may consider mitigating or aggravating factors when recommending punishment. For instance, a first violation may only warrant an in-school suspension, while a pattern of activity or particularly severe fighting may call for long-term suspension.

Level 3 violations generally require long-term suspension unless the principal of the student’s school recommends a short-term suspension based on mitigating factors. Infractions included in this category are possession or selling of drugs and alcohol, assault, bomb threats and acts of terror.

Level 4 violations require 365-day suspensions under state law. They include bringing a firearm or bomb to school. However, board attorney Majestic clarified during the June 21 meeting that a suspension may not always be issued.

“Principals would have to recommend 365 days,” she said. “But the board can and the superintendent can consider mitigating factors.”

Level 5 is reserved for cases in which a student presents “a clear threat to the safety of other students or employees.” Expulsion is the punishment.

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