7/30/11 Education board adjusts discipline policy

Education board adjusts discipline policy
By Mike Wilder The Times-News 7/30/11     
Reprinted with permission.

 A new state law means students will still receive automatic longterm suspensions for bringing firearms or explosives to school, but long-term suspensions won’t be automatic for other offenses.

 “There are no more zero-tolerance offenses” outside those categories, said Eva DuBuisson, an attorney who works with the Alamance-Burlington Board of Education on developing policies for the school system. But, while local systems can’t create a policy calling for automatic suspensions, they can still be given on a case-by-case basis.

 The offenses for which a longterm suspension would be possible, but not automatic, include violations such as a bomb threat or assaulting a school employee.

 DuBuisson characterized the law as a compromise between those opposing “over-use” of long-term suspensions and the N.C. School Board Association. Principals have considerably more discretion under the new law, she said, while parents still have the option to appeal decisions to the superintendent and school board.

 During a meeting this week, school board members discussed changes to the system’s student code of conduct and other policies based on changes to state law.

 Gov. Beverly Perdue signed the bill into law June 24. Superintendent Lillie Cox said a delayed discussion about putting the changes in place was partly because of the transition between superintendents.

 She began the job July 1 after interim superintendent Del Burns left in late June.

 Steve Van Pelt, the board’s vice chairman, said the law’s “bottom line is the principal can always recommend longterm suspension,” though that may be overturned by the superintendent.

 Board members debated whether they should approve the policy changes during the meeting to help have written information in place for parents and students by the time traditional-schedule schools open to students Aug. 25. Students returned to yearround schools Monday. In response to a question from school board chairwoman Jackie Cole, Cox said approving the changes would make it more likely the information would go to parents and students on the first day. Board member Mary Erwin said she favored approving the policy changes without further discussion. Nearly all of them, DuBuisson said, are required by the new law.

 “We don’t have a whole lot of choice,” Cole noted.

 BUT THE BOARD ultimately agreed to delay a final vote until its Aug. 8 work session. Board member Patsy Simpson vigorously argued the policy is too important to approve without giving parents, teachers and others a chance to provide feedback. Board member Tony Rose said taking a final vote Aug. 8 would already shorten the time during which people can share opinions.

 Simpson called the student code of conduct “one of the most important and crucial documents that we put out for our students and parents … it’s reasonable for us to take the time to get feedback. How many times do we hear the big problem that we have with our schools is discipline?”

 DuBuisson said legally the board would create no problems either by going forward with or delaying action on the revised policy, as long as parents get information on the changes within the first week of the school year. She noted principals will have to abide by the new law right away, regardless of whether local policy has been changed. Rose encouraged system administrators to inform parents through the system’s phone messaging system that a change in policy is in the works to help them know what to expect if discipline problems happen involving their children.

 The board agreed to delay final approval of the changes after a motion from Brad Evans that was seconded by Simpson.

 To comment on proposed school system policies, go to www.abss.k12.nc.us. On the home page, put the cursor over “District information” and move down to “Board of Education.” In the new list that opens, click on “Public Comment on Proposed Policies” to read policies under consideration and make online comments. Rose was out of town and participated in the meeting by phone.

 His suggestions about changes to the policy sometimes got no support and other times were either agreed to by other board members or by DuBuisson as needed for either clarity or to comply with changes in the law. Among other issues, he argued the policy needed to clearly state when offenses must be reported to law enforcement and to reflect that teachers assaulted by a student have the final say in when they can return to class.