Student discipline policy again debated by U-CF School Board
By J. Chambless
By John Chambless
The fallout from student suspensions at
Unionville High School continued on Feb. 26 as the Unionville-Chadds
Ford School Board got embroiled in a lengthy debate over student
Last September, students were suspended after a football game at Unionville High School for smoking and other infractions. Parents complained to the board that some of the teens did not deserve the out-of-school suspensions that could show up when it is time for them to apply to colleges.
The board has wrestled with the district policy ever since, and the conversation has expanded to include the nature of infractions and what consequences they call for. Over the past couple of months, the board has looked at revising the language of the disciplinary policy to allow a student to ask for a recision of their penalty. The district administrator, John Sanville, was selected as the ultimate judge.
At the Feb. 26 meeting, board member Tom Day asked Sanville generally how many students get suspended in a typical year. Sanville said, “Walking the halls right now, we have 59 students who have been suspended, out of the 1,400 students at Unionville High School. Of those 59,” he added, “20 have no other discipline.”
That 20 is apparently the number of students who faced suspensions due to the incidents at the football game. Many parents have complained that their children were guilty of poor decision making that is typical of most adolescents, and did not deserve their suspensions.
During public comment at the beginning of the meeting, a Birmingham Township woman said, “I have concerns about the way the recision policy is written. It states that after a child has a 'Level B' offense, they will not be able to submit a request for recision. I'd like to go over some of the 'Level B' offenses that I find very subjective and arbitrary,” she said, citing the third unexcused lateness to school within one semester, failure to sign in at the attendance office when late to school, using “profanity or other abusive language,” and failure to return the elevator key. “I'm asking this board that 'Level B' offenses be removed from the draft, and that any child should be given the opportunity to ask for recision,” she said.
Board member Robert Sage commented that after he reviewed the suspension policy in light of the September incidents, “I think the administration was well intentioned, and that the policy was followed as it was written,” he said. “The investigations weren't perfect. Overall, I think more was done right than was done wrong, but I think we can do better. … As a board, over the next few months, there is more work to be done. We need to reconsider out-of-school suspensions as a disciplinary tool. There are lots of alternatives. I think we need to be more careful as we do investigations, and remember that our principals and administrators are not trained investigators. We need more flexibility in discipline and how the standards are applied – whether it's a suspension, and how the suspension is applied, and maybe we have a punishment that better fits the crime.”
Board member Jeff Hellrung added, “I'd like to focus on more discretion on the part of the administration to consider aggravating circumstances when assigning consequences. And I think our 10-day, out-of-school suspensions are way too long. We're not doing anything for students while they're sitting at home. I'd like to see more restorative justice, community service or maybe other things, so we can craft the consequences more directly to what went wrong, and use our disciplinary policy for its primary purpose, which is corrective training.”
Board member Gregg Lindner said, “My preference would be that we change our policy in reporting suspensions on the common application, with the notable exceptions of weapons or other violent actions. That would remove the superintendent from the difficult decisions, and it comes in line with what other districts across the state have done.
“I believe we need a review of our policy on suspensions for specific levels of offenses,” Lindner continued. “For what occurred in September, I believe that, for the overwhelming number of suspenisons, the number of days was far too excessive. We seem to have community agreement, although for very different reasons. I think everyone agreed that 10-day suspensions are not the way to move forward.”
There were voting items on the agenda regarding the suspensions of three unnamed students. The board voted to uphold the suspensions in all three cases. No other details were disclosed.
A revised version of Policy 218, the code of student conduct, was on the table for a first reading. The revision states that the district will not report suspensions to colleges, except for extremely serious offenses that would affect the safety of campuses. In the applications to be filled out by families, however, there is still a question about any suspensions the student may have received. That leaves families with the quandary of whether to lie on the application.
Sanville said of the revision, “This is a cleaner way for the board to go. We are not breaking new ground here. This is an accepted practice statewide that allows the district to make a decision not to disclose student disciplinary records. I think we're on solid footing from a legal and precedent standpoint.”
Sage expressed his hesitation about shifting the responsibility to families, saying, “it puts families in an ethical quandary. They'd like to not report the suspension. The school isn't going to do it. So if the parents don't think the suspension was justified, it leaves the family the only option to really clear their student's record -- to lie. That concerns me. I'm not sure that this is the way to correct some sub-optimal outcomes we got from the recent group of suspensions – especially because those students who owned up to what they did got a suspension.”
Board member Steve Simonson agreed, saying, “Honesty and integrity are important character traits. With what happened last fall, we put some students in the position of asking whether they should have told the truth. They see themselves as being punished, when others who didn't tell the truth did not get disciplined. To potentially put students in this position in regard to the common app, it creates a similar situation. I'm concerned about that.”
Day, referring to Sanville's comment about the number of students with suspensions, said, “So two-thirds of the students have had multiple disciplinary actions. … When we think about what we were trying to achieve with the recision policy, we were trying to achieve a work-around because of the common application. We can look parents in the face and say, 'Yes, we suspended your kid, but don't worry about it, beacause we'll never report it.' That makes us feel better, but that family still has to report that suspension on the common application. So, are we really serving the children we've been having conversations about for the past two months? Or are we just making ourselves feel better?”
The board ultimately decided to table the issue for another month, chiefly because of information from the district solicitor that they were given on Monday afternoon. “The board is getting some information on short notice,” Sanville said, “But I do encourage the board that we need to make a decision and move on.”
The first reading of the revised policy is now scheduled for March, with a vote slated in April. Both versions of the policy are online at the district's website (www.ucfsd.org) for public inspection.
At the end of the two-and-a-half-hour meeting, a woman from Pocopson Township commented to the board that, “At the end of the day, it's about what's best for the children in the district – not just the ones involved in the September incident. What's most alarming is that there have been 59 children suspended. If nothing else, the incident shed light on the fact that an out-of-school suspension has enormous ramifications – academically and emotionally. And it's a long-lasting impact.
“Everyone should be held accountable for their actions,” she said, “and I would never want a student to think that disciplinary action should be dismissed in any way. We don't want our children to lie. But after the incidents that happened in September, it gave me pause. I think the 'no report' is definitely a good thing in general for the entire district. If I'm sitting on a college board, I only want to know if kids are a danger to society. I think that was the original intention of the reporting – a violent circumstance.
"If a child has admitted what they did wrong, and done things to improve their behavior, perhaps going through the process of a recision is a greater learning experience for them. That student would feel that their voice had been heard. Then the family could fill out the application as they choose.”
At the opening of the meeting, Sanville asked for a moment of silence for the families of the students killed and wounded in Parkland, Fla., this month.
“Since Feb. 14, all of us have had feelings about the enormity of it all, and have transitioned to how we view our own schools and security,” he said. “There are questions we all ask ourselves as we see 4,100 students come to our schools every day: Are we prepared in case of an emergency? What's our strategy moving forward? It really starts with the work of this body, the school board, and their commitment to make sure our children are safe. This board approved a 31-point security plan. We don't spend a lot of time talking about it -- it's just part of the culture here. The plan cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, without much fanfare.”
Sanville also cited the board's support for health and wellness initiatives, in addition to the social workers and school psychologists who serve as a resource in schools.
“So far this year, we've had over 100 emergency drills – not just fire drills, but lockdown, active shooter, tornado, evacuations,” Sanville said. “There are dozens of scenarios that our staff and children practice every year. We don't have all the answers. But we constantly review our protocols and try to revise our plans to be as prepared as we can be.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.