Stakes high for school discipline policies

Stakes high for school discipline policies

Kristen Kromer Staff writer

A boy brings a pocketknife to school. Two students fight after lunch. A girl accuses three others of harassment.

These are everyday occurrences at schools around the region, and educators spend a good chunk of time figuring out how best to deal with them.

Suspension? Expulsion? Detention? How do educators decide when just to have a long talk and when to send kids home?

Privacy laws prohibit school officials from sharing student discipline information with the public, so the decisions are typically kept within the boundaries of the school world.

Two recent decisions, however, made it into the public forum when upset parents contacted the media. In one case, three Bemiss Elementary School students were suspended for bringing tiny toy guns to school. In the other, three Rogers High School students were suspended for a remark about killing annoying people. The suspension for two students was reduced after parents complained to administrators.

In both cases, some parents considered the discipline an overreaction.

Educators know they can’t please everyone, but they say school violence has left them no choice but to take things like threats and toy guns seriously.

“We’re in a much different place than we were 10 years ago,” said Lincoln Heights Elementary School Principal Mike McGinnis. “We can’t blow things off, saying it’s `Just a joke’ or `Just a toy.'”

So, they try to use their best judgment to differentiate between true threats and innocent mistakes.

“Everyone wants tough consequences until it applies to them,” said Dave Bouge, principal of North Pines Middle School in Spokane Valley. “Then they want thoughtful consideration and someone to look at both sides.”

But discipline decisions are never spontaneous, educators say. They start by collecting information from as many sources as possible. They consider the student’s discipline history, intent and age, the severity of the incident and the effect on those involved.

“We are conscious of overreacting and underreacting,” said Jim Lien, principal at Woodland Middle School in the Coeur d’Alene School District. “You just make the best judgment you possibly can. You make the decision for the right reason, so that the student can learn from it and so we can get the kind of behavior we need in school.”

Despite district zero-tolerance policies for drugs, alcohol and weapons, educators say they always make room for reason.

“School officials have to make common-sense decisions,” said Bouge, “or else they’re being irresponsible.”

A hypothetical example: A Boy Scout brings a knife to school, having forgotten it was still in his backpack after a weekend camping trip. The boy brings it to his teacher, saying he accidentally brought it to school.

“I do not consider that an offense, though by the letter of the law, it is,” said Bouge.

If, however, the boy had taken the knife and shown it to his friends, or was threatening people with it, that would warrant discipline, Bouge said.

“It’s always intent,” he said. “Not just physical possession. It’s not an excuse, but kids do stupid things. It’s the nature of the beast.”

That was the case with the Bemiss students. Two boys who were using the toy guns in a threatening manner were suspended for two days, which their parents agreed was appropriate. After his mom talked with the principal, the boy who had just brought the toys to school – but hadn’t used them in a threatening way – got in-school suspension.

At Lincoln Heights, McGinnis has a drawer of about a dozen toy guns, plastic knives and a plastic sword – things he’s confiscated from students over the past three years. Though no one was using the items in a threatening manner, each student brought the item to school intentionally, and was suspended for at least a day.

“I want to make it clear that this isn’t OK,” he said. “And to make sure the parents know how serious it is.”

Like many schools, Lincoln Heights has a ban on bringing toys to school – all toys, not just toy weapons.

“The community needs to know that when these things happen, I’ll do something about it,” McGinnis said. “Not dealing with things is the biggest mistake we could make. Not doing something communicates to kids it’s OK.”

Discipline is serious business at school, with situations cropping up almost daily. Bouge figured he spends about half of every day dealing with discipline – mostly small things like girls calling each other names or a boy stealing candy from a classmate.

According to Spokane Public Schools’ statistical data for 2002- 2003, there were 5,517 short-term (fewer than 10 days) suspensions, 178 long-term suspensions, 1,119 in-school suspensions, 136 emergency expulsions and 25 expulsions in the district last year.

Carole Meyer, assistant principal at Ferris High School, spends her whole day managing student behavior, helping kids learn from bad decisions.

“I always look at it and think `How can this student make things right?'” Meyer said. Sometimes it’s by writing a letter of apology. Often, the answer is community service – two hours for every hour of class time interrupted. Students help teachers in class, pick up trash around campus or wash desks. Sometimes they spend a day helping out at SpokAnimal or the East Central Community Center.

“There’s so much to gain for a kid who gives a day to community service,” Meyer said. “We hear from parents that it was a great lesson learned.”

Discipline decisions don’t always sit well with parents, though.

On Wednesday, for example, three Rogers High School students were suspended for 2-1/2 days for making a remark about killing annoying people. One was sophomore Melissa Russell. She said she didn’t make the remark, which she characterized as a joke, but only agreed with it.

Her mother Kathy spoke out about what she called an overreaction. The district can’t comment on the specifics of the situation or the students’ discipline history, but Russell said her daughter had a clean discipline record.

Parents of the other students did not speak to the media.

After Kathy Russell appealed the decision to district executive director Emmett Arndt, Melissa returned to school Friday, after just a day and a half of suspension.

Though she’s happy Melissa is back at school, Russell said she is still upset with the process.

“Melissa never had a chance to tell her side of the story. What she said was not a direct threat to anyone,” she said. “I think detention would have been better.”

Arndt said Rogers administrators gave the students and parents ample opportunity to share their stories. It is not uncommon for suspensions to be reduced, he said, after examining “the impact the (discipline) decision is having.”

Such disagreements are difficult for educators, who know they can’t handle student discipline alone.

“If we don’t have good parental support, we won’t get change from kids,” McGinnis said. “If a parent blows it off and says `Yeah, yeah it’s a principal calling about some stupid issue,’ the kid thinks `Great! I have a parent on my side.'”

Bouge said he hears from principals throughout the state about parents wanting to blame others for their own dysfunction.

“Parents need to get into schools and work with the teachers,” he said. “I don’t want to insult the good ones, but too many parents want to drop their kid off at the door and not hear from us until 4 p.m. That’s not acceptable.”

Copyright 2004 Cowles Publishing Company

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