The Wake County Board of Education’s massive overhaul of the district’s code of student conduct passed unanimously Tuesday.
The 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.
Read More: Changes on Tap for Wake Discipline Policies
Some community groups criticized the new policy for not going far enough and said school staff and the board’s lawyer were not open with the public while developing the new rules.
Board members chose not to prohibit principals from recommending suspensions for truancy and tardiness, as sought by the Professional Learning Team studying the changes.
The Professional Learning Team is a body of the Wake County school system composed of the YWCA Racial Justice Initiative, Advocacy for Children’s Services and Great Schools in Wake.
“Suspending a kid for skipping school is just logically inconsistent,” said Jason Langberg, equal justice works fellow for Advocacy for Children’s Services.
The sentiment was echoed by board Vice-Chair John Tedesco in a work session Tuesday. But some board members felt taking away the option of short-term suspension for truancy and tardiness might hamstring principals in some cases.
“I think our principals need to have the option should in-school options not appear to be doing anything,” Kevin Hill said.
He added that principals cannot assign after-school detention unless a parent agrees to pick up the student, making detention infeasible for some children.
Langberg is also concerned about the laxity in the length of time a student can be suspended. Under the new policy, a long-term suspension is longer than 10 days but less than the entire school year.
“That leaves room for just way too much discretion,” Langberg said. “A minor fight at one school might get 11 days, while a similar fight at another school might get a 179-day suspension.”
But Langberg believes the revisions are a step in the right direction.
“Certainly we’ve made a lot of really good progress,” he said. “At the same time there’s a lot left to be done. It’s taken a lot of leadership on the school board.”
“Behind Closed Doors”
Langberg also questioned the process behind the discipline code revisions.
“Ann Majestic and Victoria Curtis did this behind closed doors,” Langberg said, speaking of the board attorney and student due process coordinator.
Langberg questions why Majestic and Curtis took until April to bring their revisions to the public at a school board meeting when the process began in September 2010. Then board members received revisions to the code of conduct less than 48 hours before meetings, he said.
In a response after Tuesday’s board meeting, Majestic said that she was not brought into the process until the winter/spring semester.
Langberg believes that the long silence from Majestic and Curtis hampered the board’s ability to properly consider the changes.
At the June 21 board meeting, Majestic had emphasized to the board the time constraints facing it with only a few weeks before year-round schools were to open on June 11.
Those schools opened with a set of interim guidelines that have been in place since September.
The new code of conduct provides for a hearing panel to review and approve each suspension recommendation. The board did not specify who will sit on the hearing panels.
In order to comply with pending state legislation, the new code of conduct does away with the practice of having the teachers at the student’s school sit on the hearing panel.
The bill reads, “Neither the board nor the superintendent shall appoint any individual to serve as a hearing officer or on a hearing panel who is under the direct supervision of the principal recommending suspension.”
Superintendent Tony Tata offered the board several options for staffing the panels but recommended one: a three-member panel composed of a central services staff member, a current school administrator (not the child’s principal) and a retired Wake County educator.
In past board meetings, some members floated the idea of staffing the panel entirely with retired educators on a volunteer basis.
Tata shot down that idea.
“With the churn that these folks will be on, the utopian notion of giving back will very quickly wear thin,” Tata said. “When you play out the logistical conclusions of making this an enduring system, we felt that this should be one that would lock them in with expectations to hold to these standards.”
Tata estimates about 200 suspension cases a year.
The budget for the 2011-12 school year does not include a line item for the hearing panel. Wake schools staff estimate about $50,000 to $75,000 per year necessary for expenses, including stipends of $50 per hour.
Board member Debra Goldman questioned the need for such a high stipend.
“This is going to be a rigorous process, and we’ve got to have something attractive enough to pull them in,” Tata said.