Reading Between the Policy Lines

By Rosa Conrad

Continuing with the discussion on alternative school discipline beyond zero tolerance, it’s interesting to see how local school districts have changed their policies and how they were implementing new strategies. Would they address the recommendations made at the White House conference this past summer? In earlier blogs, I referred to cases in which zero tolerance policies were implemented in several school districts. Yet some states are now moving forward with designing new behavior and discipline policies. So I strongly suggest that parents, guardians, and caretakers review the policies in the area in which they live.

student_discipline_head_photoLooking at a North County, San Diego school district I had discussed in a previous blog, I noticed that they have removed the word “zero tolerance” from their current Student/Parent Handbook. They are instead using Education Code Interventions and Consequences to describe the new changes to their policies. The section previously titled “Disciplinary Actions” is now re-titled, “The Student Conduct: Best Policies, Practices, and Procedures.” Such a change implies a shift away from a disciplinarian approach toward one that is more appropriate and fair. I also noticed that these revised sections are now much longer and more in depth.

Although new policy language is much more informative about what would happen to any student should they violate any of the school discipline codes, how it addresses student conduct remains a concern. The policy language is reminiscent to criminal justice policies. Instead of reinforcing the ideas of best policies as the White House conference suggests, this policy seems to be putting the students at risk of going through the school-to-prison pipeline for any violations warranting suspension and expulsion.

According to the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan:

Creating and sustaining safe, supportive schools is absolutely essential to ensuring students can engage in the rich learning experiences they need for success in college, work and life—that’s why rethinking school discipline is critical to boosting student  achievement and improving school outcomes. Today’s conference shows that there are leaders across the country who are committed to doing this work. We are proud to stand as partners with these educators to say that we have to continue to do better for all of our students.

Some of the policy language calling for disciplinary action does not necessarily reflect this support for students in helping them stay on a positive track toward academic success. Take the term, restorative discipline practices, for example. The National Institute for Justice defines restorative justice as “a philosophical framework which has been proposed as an alternative to the current way of thinking about crime and criminal justice.” This trend of criminalizing students is also represented in how the school district in question has implemented citations as a possible consequence for student conduct violations. It is unclear what this disciplinary action entails. Are these citations being issued by local law enforcement? These citations as well as other alternative disciplines need to be explained further. An explanation on who is making these decisions should also be provided. As noted in an earlier blog, some of the decisions made by my school administrators did not reflect the best interests of the students.

DisciplineWe have seen in the past how some actions by students are not necessarily violating school discipline policies, yet disciplinary actions under zero tolerance have affected them negatively. Moving forward with new policies can give schools an opportunity to direct students in a positive manner, but first we must make them feel that they are not in a criminal institution.

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