Tuesday, June 13, 2017

EDITORIAL >> Discipline that’s fair, consistent

At first we didn’t know what to make of the rather large number of expulsions this past school year.

Of about 4,000 Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District students, the board expelled 37 — originally reported to be 38 — or about 1 percent. The Pulaski County Special School District, with about 12,000 students, expelled only 21 students (or less than two-tenths of a percent), and Cabot, with about 10,000 students, expelled just five.

How to explain the disparity?

“It’s an unfair question,” said JNPSD Deputy Superintendent Jeremy Owoh. “We don’t work for (other districts),” he said.

Of the 37 students the board expelled, 25 were high school students, nine middle school students and three elementary school students.

Females accounted for 15 of the 37, according to Owoh.

The new district has come a long way in a short period of time, exhibiting top-flight leadership and steadfastness of purpose, so we’re inclined to believe they are on the right track.

The school board has proven itself thoughtful not only in establishing the rules of conduct for students, but also in following the superintendent’s recommendation to enforce them.

We think the district and the board have established high expectations for student responsibility and behavior, but in the flux of Jacksonville-North Pulaski School District’s first year as a standalone district, students may not have been certain of what to expect.

But here’s the takeaway — administrators and the board want the students to succeed, and if they must curb disruptive behavior — as defined in the student handbook — by some of the students to create a safe environment conducive to learning by the others, well, we understand.

Outgoing Superintendent Tony Wood simply said, “The numbers speak for themselves.”

Incoming Superintendent Bryan Duffie, who inherits the district, warts and all come July 1, said, “It is (our) hope that discipline problems and expulsions gradually decrease, and we don’t have to go on to the ultimate sanction.”

And Owoh, who’s been lured away to the deputy commissioner’s job at the state Education Department, said, “We’re just taking care of business here.” The administrators in the district were “following the process in the handbook — rules passed by the board.”

“Expectations are set when the board sets the handbook,” Owoh said. “To be fair and consistent, we follow the student handbook.”

“We’ll keep enforcing policy,” said Duffie. “That’s the way we do business. If interventions don’t work, we’ll eventually get there with those students.”

“There are expectations of how young people should conduct themselves so they don’t detract from others,” Wood said. “Our goal has been to follow the student policy handbook, provide interventions to promote positive, consistent and fair discipline.”

The administrators work through progressive sanctions, starting with a parent conference before moving on to suspensions.

In some cases paddling (with parental permission) is an option instead of suspension. Expulsion is the last resort for discipline.

Expulsion can follow a string of infractions or occur for one serious infraction, such as bringing a gun to school.

“We started a positive behavior intervention system,” Owoh said. It can include separating students by changing seats or even classrooms, meeting with parents and providing incentives for students who don’t receive disciplinary sanctions.

Positive behavior intervention includes low-er hierarchy approaches, like encouraging students to hold up a red card and going to a quiet part of the room or to see a school counselor or psychologist to cool down.

Meeting with a student’s parents can reveal strategies used at home to defuse potential problems.

Teachers can also use incentives to reward students who avoid disciplinary problems, Owoh said.

Parents are sometimes supportive of paddling — three whacks are the maximum — rather than expelling their children.

Of the five students expelled at the June school board meeting, none of the expulsions were challenged.

Expulsions and probation can follow a student from one school year to the next, but the student’s discipline folder doesn’t. The new school year will provide a fresh start.

While there have been fights and an occasional weapon on school grounds, Wood, Duffie and Owoh agree there has been no indication of gang problems at the schools, including gang graffiti.