By Paige Parisi, Director, Recruitment, Training and Support Center (FCSN) and Leslie M. Leslie, Project Coordinator – MassPAC (FCSN)
It is sometimes called “vox populi.” The source for public comment can be traced to the Age of Enlightenment in Europe and the American Revolution. The tradition of the New England Town Hall is rooted in this concept, and it continues today in the workings of government at all levels.
A period of public comment is the chance for all interested parties to comment on planned government actions before they become final. This tradition played out in important ways when the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) released proposed regulations for the new Massachusetts discipline law, Chapter 222, in January 2014. DESE established a five-week period during which it would receive and review comments about the new rules. The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) was scheduled to vote two weeks later.
Although the new law doesn’t change protections for special education students, these regulations will govern behavior management for all students not on an IEP, including students on 504 Plans, for years to come (see Newsline ed. December 2013 “From Zero Tolerance to Compassionate Accountability”).
Student suspension is very often a crisis moment for families. There may be blame, sadness, anger, stigma, and disappointment. Families are in need of information and support. Parents need a meaningful opportunity to participate in discussions about their child’s behavior in school, and to understand decisions made by the school and the reasons for those decisions. After reading the draft regulations, we joined the Massachusetts Advocates for Children, who led a coalition of advocates in support of enacting Chapter 222, in calling for increased parental participation under the new rules.
Chapter 222 advances school discipline in MA with the requirement that schools consider ways to reengage students in learning and avoid long-term suspension until other courses of action are tried. However, the proposed regulations for this provision contained only punitive options. The Federation along with other organizations suggested the inclusion of alternatives such as positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS).
A provision for Emergency Removal also raised concerns. This allows a principal to immediately suspend a student before going through the new due process protections in the law, a concept that does not exist in the original text of Chapter 222. The terms of this practice were very controversial during the period of public comment.
DESE received comments from 36 organizations, including the Federation. In fact, the vote by BESE had to be postponed an entire month. Four days before the April vote, revised regulations were released, marked to show changes, along with memos describing the many changes that were made as a result of comments from the public and, for the changes that were not made, an explanation was also provided. Parents and other stakeholders welcomed the transparency of the process and were pleased with the revisions.
For example, added to the Purpose provision of the regulations, “to promote engagement of a student’s parent in discussion of the student’s misconduct, and options for responding to it.”
Parents were also given the opportunity to discuss their child’s conduct with the school before discipline was decided and offer information, including special circumstances, which the principal should consider in determining discipline for the student. This is valuable attention to the family voice.
As for Alternatives to Suspension, the original suggestions:
• Loss of privileges, detention, an apology, a student contract, restitution, and probation were removed completely and replaced with the following:
• Evidence-based strategies such as mediation, conflict resolution, restorative justice, and PBIS.
Emergency Removal remains a part of the rules. Due to objection in the public comments, the revision removed the most subjective language. However, at the April 29th meeting, a superintendent, principal and school attorney spoke strongly that the language was necessary to keep schools safe. A compromise was reached at the meeting and somewhat less subjective language was made part of the rule. It will be interesting to see how schools carry out this provision in the context of the overall changes under Chapter 222.
Parents will, in fact, have the opportunity to track a school’s progress under the law’s data reporting provisions. All MA
schools, including charters, will have to monitor and report on their disciplinary practices. In the fall of each year, DESE will make this information available to the public, broken down by subgroups, including but not limited to, race and ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and student with a disability status. Each year the Commissioner will identify schools that need assistance to reduce long-term suspensions or expulsions. The Commissioner will also annually identify schools and districts with significant disciplinary disproportions based on race and ethnicity, or disability. These schools will be required to implement plans to address these issues.
While MA was making these advances, the federal government also took major steps to fight discrimination in school exclusion. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division jointly released a broad set of guidance documents reminding schools of antidiscrimination laws and showing them how to identify, avoid and remedy discriminatory disciplinary policies. We join these Offices in urging schools to train teachers in classroom management and to ensure that teachers don’t rely on law enforcement for routine discipline.
Chapter 222 will require schools to revise their Codes of Conduct. Schools, parents and students are encouraged to collaborate on this project. Boston Public Schools was an early adopter of the new rules and adopted a new code of conduct last September, which is available online. The Model Code on Education and Dignity developed by the Dignity in Schools Campaign also offers online sample language for many provisions of Chapter 222.