Flagler Schools’ Latest Student Code of Conduct: Zero Tolerance Endures, More Infractions Added, But Also More Vagueness
FlaglerLive | July 17, 2014
In a few ways, discipline in Flagler County schools will be a little gentler when the fall term begins on Aug. 18. In most ways, however, the ritual of annual changes to the Student Code of Conduct adds to the list of disciplinary measures and consequences. And as in previous years, there is no equivalent code of conduct for faculty and staff.
The Flagler County School Board approved the proposed changes to be advertised for 30 days, thus giving the public a chance to weigh in on the changes. (See the proposed code below, with changes highlighted in yellow.)
The administration’s submission of the proposed changes Tuesday was to be a chance for the board itself to weigh in and make changes, if it deemed them necessary. But the administration rebuffed the only substantial changes board members proposed—clearer definitions of “harassment” and a less categorical approach to first-time dress code offenders—though in neither case were the matters of serious concern to more than one board member.
One surprise: despite Jacob Oliva, an opponent of zero-tolerance policies, now holding the superintendent’s job, the district’s policy on the matter remains identical to what it’s been in the past.
“My ideas on zero tolerance? It doesn’t work,” Oliva said during his interview for the superintendent’s job in January, in one of his most forceful statements. “You can’t have policies in place where there is no investigation or no state of trying to determine the root cause of trying to determine why somebody did what they did. Kids make mistakes. Employees make mistakes. We have adults who make mistakes all the time.” Zero tolerance, he said, is “probably an antiquated practice” that must change.
But it is still in place, word for word, and was not even a subject of discussion by either Oliva or board members at the workshop Tuesday.
Nevertheless, the code is being softened regarding out of school suspensions. Students will have the ability to reduce their suspension days or, when they’re suspended for one day, eliminate that suspension altogether, if they perform one of a series of options such as fulfilling community service time, attending parent-student seminar night, attending a fire prevention seminar or a tobacco seminar: it’ll be similar to drivers avoiding points on their license by attending a defensive driving course.
That, however, is the only new, gentler part of the code. Beyond that, the proposed changes add to infractions and definitions. Under Level I, for example—“minor acts of misconduct that interfere with the orderly operation of the classroom”—which include dress code violations, not wearing an ID, misconduct or a student hanging out where he or she is not supposed to, the offense of “Failure to Return Daily Use Computer” was added. That’s a reflection of the district’s new policy of giving every high school student (and soon, every student) a laptop. Some use it only at school. That’s the “daily use” computer. They’re supposed to return it at the end of the day. Not showing up to an assigned duty is also a Level I offense, as will be the accumulation of four minor classroom infractions.
Level I punishments fill a long list, from “time out” to confiscations to parent conferences to detention of all sorts. The Level I punishment list is unchanged.
Under Level II infractions, which can trigger criminal proceedings, a separate entry was added under bullying (as opposed to the existing “cyber bullying” category). It defines bullying as “Any intentional/malicious acts repeated with no provocation over time by a student o a group of students directed against another student(s) with the intent to ridicule, humiliate or intimidate.” But the definition goes on to include a potentially controversial qualification: “To be defined as bullying, the behavior must be repeated, show imbalance of power, and be malicious in intent.” Both the latter two clauses open a window of subjectivity so broadly that, absent further clarification or definition of the terms used, raise the threshold of provable bullying significantly.
A similarly vague Level II offense was added, termed “Disruption (level 2),” and defined as: “Behavior which disrupts the educational process but is not criminal or a safety concern.”
Additional new infractions under Level II include not showing up for lunch detention or in-school detention, using “profane language” (the term is not defined beyond “language, gestures, objects, or pictures which are inappropriate for the school setting or which tend to disrupt the orderly school environment” or school activities), skipping school, and “general use of social media on campus without malicious intent.” In other words, making a Facebook status update, sending out a Tweet, or pinning an image on Pinetrest is an offense equivalent to misconduct, bullying and cheating: those Level II offenses can result in out-of-school suspension of one to five days, mediation, community service and other consequences.
Level III offenses can lead to expulsion, alternative-school assignments, five to 10 days’ suspension and other forms of intervention, including legal proceedings. To those were added “any use of profanity directed” at staff.
“There is a distinct difference between a student who’s using vulgarity on campus and a student who is having profane language towards a teacher,” Tim King, the administrator who presented the proposed changes to the school board Tuesday as a representative of the Student Services Department.
The possession of ammunition, three or more referrals in a five-day period, the use of ethnic slurs, and using social media “with malicious intent” are also now Level III offenses. “The old code ethnic racial slurs, we changed that to slurs of federally protected groups because it gave us the parameters to be able to protect more students and adults under that code,” King said.
Under Level IV offenses, which can be punished through any means listed under previous levels, but also include outright expulsion, was were added “harassment,” “hazing,” “physical attack” and “sexual assault.” The harassment and sexual assault entries are particularly vague, or lacking in qualification. School board member Colleen Conklin seized on the sexual harassment definition.
“I am concerned that this could lead to interpretation,” Conklin said. “You could put 10 people in a room and they might interpret this very differently.”
King said it was not the district’s definition, but the state Department of Education’s. “They tell us this is how we define this behavior or how we define this infraction,” King said, noting that in any case legislative changes will require local districts to develop separate harassment policies this year. That will come to the board soon.
The details of the proposed changes produced little additional discussion among board members. What did provoke the most extensive discussion on the matter was the segment about the dress code—which is entirely unchanged.
“The consensus that we gather is people either love it or they hate it,” King said. “As you all are aware, there is no middle ground. As a district we saw an increase in dress code referrals.” Parents and the disciplinary committee’s most persistent complaint is that when a student is referred to administrative offices in secondary schools over a dress code violation, the referral ends up devouring 45 minutes of the student’s time—an entire class period.
That bothers Andy Dance, the school board chairman. “Personally I’ve always been at odds with the first offense,” he said. “First offense is more of a warning instead of the mandatory, out of school, out of class until you get it fixed.”
“It’s a struggle. The thing about the dress code,” Katrina Townsend, the director of student services, said, “is that the kids know the code, and the parents do too, and all of the phone calls that I do, and especially the ones in the summer, I remind them so they’re shopping for the dress code. And speaking as a parent whose kid chose to violate the dress code this year at FPC, one of the things she said to me was that the time she got caught was the first time she was ever checked, but it wasn’t the first time that she hadn’t worn a collared shirt. This is my kind, my 16 year old. And so it wasn’t that she didn’t know, and the kids, it’s not that they didn’t know, it’s that they’re kids, same as we did when we were kids, you see how far you can go before you get busted and caught.”
Townsend sympathized with Dance, and said that changes will be made to the code—but not this year. It’s not clear why.
“Is it really a big deal to change it at this point as far as the first offense?” board member John Fischer asked.
“No, because we’re just putting this out for advertisement,” Sue Dickinson said: that’s the point of advertising proposed changes (or non-changes) to the student code, or to any policy: it’s not just to do it because the law says the board must, but to give the public, like the board, a chance to influence the code, if not change it. It’s then the administration’s responsibility to incorporate any such feasible and reasonable changes—as long as the board agrees—and, if necessary, re-advertise the policy before adoption. More often than not, however, the process of advertising policy changes for 30 days has taken on a different meaning: by the time the board advertises the policy, it’s in its virtual final form, and, with some exceptions, any changes are rare, or resisted.
Townsend explained: “If students are allowed to continue their involvement in their general activity while violating whatever that policy is, and I’ll just change it to something else, if they’re allowed to be in class while they’re cursing at the teacher, they’re going to continue to curse at the teacher because they’re not removed from that environment.” But Townsend’s analogy was flawed: a dress code violation is a minor, Level I offense that often is informally dealt with through warnings. Cussing at a teacher is a very serious Level III offense that few teachers would tolerate without immediate consequences.
“But,” Townsend said, noting that students are given broad latitude to deal with the issue—as when faculty or administrators make alternative but appropriate clothing available to them–“I do think you’re going to see more thought on it.”