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School discipline policies targeted
Cotton: County schools already in line with administration’s aims

Tuesday, January 28, 2014


The Obama administration wants schools to abandon what it has called discriminatory, “zero-tolerance” disciplinary practices that often send students to court instead of the principal’s office.

Henry County Schools Superintendent Jared Cotton said the county already takes appropriate measures to prevent school matters from becoming judicial ones.

“‘Zero-tolerance’ is a term that has been used quite a bit,” Cotton said. “We take a strong stand against quite a few things,” such as drugs, weapons and violence in schools. “As far as dealing with the police ... as a general rule, the administration deals with” most disciplinary infractions.

In a statement issued earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder argued that police and school resource officers (SROs) get more involved in matters that school personnel could handle themselves.

“A routine school disciplinary infraction should land a student in the principal’s office, not in a police precinct,” Holder said in a recent Associated Press report.

Cotton agrees, which is why he said Henry County’s SROs are trained to know when they should get involved and when they shouldn’t.

“The only time we have the SROs assist is when it gets into potential legal issues or specific threats against the schools,” or in cases where drugs are involved, he said. “We’re very fortunate that we have such a good relationship with the (Henry County) sheriff’s office” to avoid cases where authorities insert themselves into school disciplinary proceedings before they should.

For example, Cotton said a fight between students is something school officials should handle unless it becomes a threat to the safety of others in the school. In cases of bullying or other situations that need to be investigated, the administration takes the lead.

“Usually what happens is, when the administration investigates” and a legal issue is found, the authorities then get involved, he said.

School resource officers are “an extension of the sheriff’s office, in my mind,” even though every deputy can’t automatically be an SRO, Cotton said. The county employs five SROs currently, he added.

Nonbinding recommendations issued by Holder and the Justice Department encourage schools to ensure that all school personnel are trained in classroom management, conflict resolution and approaches to de-escalate classroom disruptions — and understand that they are responsible for administering routine student discipline instead of security or police officers, the AP reported.

The Justice Department said in a letter it released earlier this month that the guidelines were intended to level the playing field among races.

“In our investigations, we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students,” said the letter, released to school districts Jan. 8. “In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem.”

However, Cotton said the state already takes steps to make sure racial profiling doesn’t occur in the disciplinary process.

“We provide data to the state related to disciplinary infractions, and we do get information about how well we’re doing” in regard to the racial makeup of those cases, he said.

The Virginia Department of Education sometimes cites schools in the state for having “over-representation” of minority groups in its disciplinary practices, Cotton said, adding that Henry County’s schools have not been cited by the department.

“Over-representation” of minority groups means, for example, if 30 percent of students are minorities, as they are in Henry County, then the disciplinary action against minorities ideally should represent no more than 30 percent.

“If 50 percent of your students who get disciplined are black and 30 percent of your students are black, then that’s something you need to look into,” Cotton added. “What we tell everyone is that our expectations are the same, and (teachers) need to apply (discipline) consistently” among all students.

Cotton said the school district also plans to survey students later this year to ask if they feel rules are applied fairly and equally.

“The message is always that you have high expectations for all students,” he said. If a school has over-representation of one group in disciplinary action, it can raise suspicion that there are unequal expectations among certain groups, he added.

Ultimately, he said, “discipline is really about teaching, You want to make sure that any disciplinary action is a learning experience.”

The district has developed alternatives to severe punishments, such as expulsion, Cotton said, to prevent students from being placed into the judicial system and thus virtually ruining their academic careers. Utilities such as online learning and a first-offender program for students who are caught with drugs or alcohol on school grounds offer students a chance to reform from inside the education system.

The first-offender program is an eight-week counseling program with Piedmont Community Services for counseling for students and parents “that’s an example of how, instead of putting them in an alternate setting or expelling a child,” the school can give a student a chance to change his or her behavior while advancing their academic career, Cotton said.


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