Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Code of Conduct - Proposed Changes and Approved Changes

At the last meeting of the full board, we voted (5-1) to make specific amendments to the existing Code of Conduct rather than accept the changes proposed by administration. In the past week, the board has received a few e-mails arguing that we should have adopted the proposed changes. Unfortunately, the description of what happened and why has been incomplete at best, so I am posting my thoughts on making the motion to amend the existing code rather than adopt the administration's proposal. 

The full video of the discussion is on-line, starting c. minute 10:30 on the video clock. If you have seen selected cuts on other blog sites, I suggest that you watch the entire discussion and decide what did or did not happen for yourself:

I also encourage you to read the respective codes. The substantive difference between the proposed new version that was rejected and the modified existing code that was approved and will be in place in August, is the degree to which student and family rights are articulated. The existing code is much more explicit about the right to due process and the steps involved in a suspension or expulsion.

I am particularly concerned that the proposed new version glosses over constitutional protections. Some have argued that they need not be articulated because students are inherently protected by the constitution. Having read many expulsion transcripts over the past five years, I find that students from families with high levels of education and/or the resources to hire a lawyer are indeed protected by the constitution. Students, families, and advocates for students, who are not at those levels of privilege are far less likely to understand their rights and far less likely to be able to defend themselves against the charges. I believe that is a problem. Printing specific rights is not a guarantee of protection, but it is far better than vague language saying that students can talk to an unidentified someone if they think they are being treated unfairly.

The existing code was last revised in the past 3 years, with an eye toward creating consistency in treatment across schools and demographic groups. The board had identified significant disparities in outcomes without guidelines for discipline at the respective levels of offense. Again, the students perceived as "good" kids tended to get breaks and less severe discipline, especially when their parents and lawyers could muster letters of support from prominent members of the community. Students who did not appear, and who had no one appear on their behalf at the hearing, tended to get the harshest punishment. The demographics of those two different outcomes was a serious concern. The current system mitigated, but did not completely eliminate those disparities.

Two years ago, we were asked to give more flexibility to principals and the superintendent in recommending expulsions. Since then, we are again seeing some cases dismissed because the students "didn't understand the seriousness of their actions." Other students, at times with lesser offenses, are recommended for expulsion. Would anyone care to place a wager on the hue and socioeconomic status of each group?

As imperfect as it is, the current system has been a significant step forward in leveling the field when it comes to the most serious levels of discipline. There are elements of the proposed changes that would be a step backward. I wish that I could say that we have not seen shocking disparities in the flexibility that was created two years ago. That is not the case. For that reason, I made the compromise motion to make amendments to fix known problems in the code without adopting the entire package.