Discipline policy reviewed

Published 1:30 am Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Beaufort County Board of Education is considering a new discipline policy that would take effect with the start of the new school year in August.
The new policy will reflect changes in the law — including the repeal of zero-tolerance policies for schools — enacted by state lawmakers in the closing days of the Legislature.
Local school officials say a portion of the new law results, in part, from a state Supreme Court ruling based on a case that originated in Beaufort County.
The board’s review of its discipline policy is part of an overhaul of all the Beaufort County School policies that’s expected to take about 18 months.
That overhaul will add to the workload of the board and school administrators, the board was told at its meeting Thursday.
“This sounds like that we have a lot of work to do in a very short period of time,” board member Mike Isbell said after learning of the task ahead.
The new law on student discipline overturns a zero-tolerance policy against weapons and student violence and puts to an end automatic suspension from school of students for a variety of offenses.
As a result of those and other changes, Beaufort County public-school officials will have to revise the BCS Student Code of Conduct before students return to school Aug. 25.
“A new student Code of Conduct has to be in place before the start of the school year. … The General Assembly gave you no leeway here,” said Janine Murphy, assistant legal counsel for the North Carolina School Boards Association.
Murphy met with the board Thursday as it began a process of revising its policy manual to correlate policies with a system published by the association, Policies to Lead the Schools.
Murphy said the policy review will take more than a year to complete.
Each BCS policy will remain in effect until it is replaced by a new policy on the same topic or repealed by the board, she said.
Generally, zero-tolerance policies in schools punish any infraction of a rule regardless of intent. They became part of federal education law under the Gun-Free Schools Act of 1994, which mandated that students who bring firearms to school be expelled. They gained widespread support among school leaders following the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
Supporters of zero-tolerance policies have said they are needed to ensure student safety.
Critics often cite cases where minor offenses have resulted in severe punishments for students who did not intend to harm anyone, such as the 17-year-old drill-team commander who was suspended from school in Colorado for having practice rifles in her vehicle.
Critics say students who are suspended from school for long periods of time ultimately drop out of school and create more-serious problems for society.
Under the new North Carolina law, the punishment for infractions that would have resulted in an automatic suspension from school will now be left to school administrators. It allows superintendents and principals to consider a student’s intent and disciplinary and academic histories, among other factors, in suspending students for long terms.
Expelling or suspending a student for more than 10 days would be limited to serious violations that threaten safety or seriously disrupt the school environment.
Examples of conduct cited in the law that are not deemed to be a “serious violation” include the use of inappropriate or disrespectful language, dress-code violations and minor physical altercations that do not involve weapons or injury. The law does give principals the discretion to determine that “aggravating circumstances” justify treating a minor violation as a serious violation.
Federal law still requires that a student who brings a firearm or destructive device, such as a bomb or a grenade, on school property or to a school-sponsored event be suspended for 365 calendar days.
The new law requires those students who are suspended long-term be offered alternative education “unless the superintendent provides a significant or important reason for declining to offer such services.” Among those reasons are violent behavior exhibited by the student or if the student poses a threat to staff or other students.
Local school officials cite this portion of the law as deriving, in part, from the state Supreme Court ruling in the case of Jessica Hardy and Vicktoria King, two students who were given long-term suspensions from Southside High School.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.