School Suspension Policy Needs Clarity

Sign on a school principal's office door

A pupil waiting outside a school principal's office
When I was in high school a hundred years ago, it was not unusual for two guys to get into a fist fight over one thing or another. I had one of those encounters myself, and afterward, ended up in the principal’s office. The principal, a former coach, read me the riot act, told me it better not happen again, then sent me back to class. It was the last time I engaged in fisticuffs during my high school career. I realize that, today, too many school fights involve weapons, and when that happens, suspensions and expulsions may be warranted. But my point is that sometimes, student misbehavior should not warrant anything more than a warning, and that brings me to the Guilford School Board, and their recent decision to allow parents to appeal their child’s short-term suspension.

In the past, it has been up to the school principal to sign off on short-term suspensions, and his or her word was pretty much final. However, earlier this month, the Board voted 6-to-3 to implement a new, two-step policy for appealing suspensions of 10 days or less. First, parents can take their case to the principal’s direct supervisor, and if not satisfied, they can then appeal directly to the superintendent. Reaction to the new policy has been mixed. Most educators I have spoken with, including former superintendents, are opposed to adding another layer of red tape to the process. Said one former administrator, “I am totally against allowing appeals of short-term suspensions because it creates way too much due process and is cumbersome.” Current Guilford School Board members Darlene Garrett and Pat Tillman also have a problem with the new policy. Speaking with the Greensboro News & Record, Tillman said, “This is a solution without a problem,” while Garrett remarked that it would, “undermine principals as well as safety in schools.” Parent Steve Mitchell told the GNR that the new appeals process would, “embolden student misbehavior and bog down schools in paperwork.”

On the flip side, Board chair Deena Hayes-Greene and many other parents welcome any policy that would help further clarify the rationale for a short-term suspension, which, if let stand, would be reflected on the student’s permanent record. I’ve never been a parent, but I’ve been a student, and from that perspective I support any process that could lessen or avoid a suspension for a minor violation. My problem with this matter, however, lies not so much with the new policy, as it does with how short-term suspensions are identified in the first place.

According to the Guilford County Schools’ Code of Conduct, there are over a dozen categories of violations which could warrant a short-term suspension, among them: using insulting or harassing language; inappropriate or lewd behavior; fighting with another student; cheating; non-compliance with direction of teachers; gambling; use of tobacco products; and, misbehaving on a school bus.

But here’s the fly in the ointment. After reading through Guilford’s entire Code of Conduct section, I couldn’t find a table or chart that specified the exact number of days suspension that are issued for a specific violation. As one former superintendent told me, “Some level of discretion is provided to principals for certain acts.” That means if Johnny punches Sam in the stomach, the number of days he will be suspended can vary from school to school, and that’s no way to run a railroad. Public schools need to codify the exact number of days your child will be suspended if he or she commits a particular offense. Doing so would give parents and students an advance warning about consequences, and perhaps eliminate the need for modified policies regarding an appeals process.

I learned early on that warnings can be an effective method for improving student behavior, and preventing suspensions altogether. I just hope our area school boards can learn that same lesson.

 
 

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