Montgomery issues new code of conduct for students

With the opening of school a week away, Montgomery County has issued a new Code of Conduct that views out-of-school suspensions as a last resort and emphasizes disciplinary consequences that allow students to learn from mistakes and repair harm.

Montgomery officials described the new document as the first extensive conduct code written by the district, which previously addressed discipline issues within its student Rights and Responsibilities handbook.

It comes in the wake of new regulations from the Maryland State Board of Education that take a more rehabilitative view of student misconduct, seeking to teach positive behavior, keep students in school and reduce racial disparities in discipline.

School officials said the new conduct code will not mean a significant change in the hallways and classrooms of the district’s 202 schools because its guiding ideas already have been in use, especially during the most recent school year.

“It just continues to stress this point that we want to be progressive with discipline and look at options besides suspension,” said Christopher Garran, associate superintendent for high schools.

Garran said out-of-school high school suspensions declined markedly from the 2012-2013 academic year to the year that ended in June — by nearly 37 percent, according to district data — and he attributed the significant drop to the kind of approaches the Code of Conduct formalizes.

“We’ve already been doing a lot of this,” he said. “We’ve been down this road.”

Montgomery’s 28-page code, which is posted on the district’s Web site and will be distributed to students, includes a 10-page matrix with offenses and suggested levels of consequences on a scale of 1 to 5.

Possible consequences include restitution, community service, parent contact, apologies, detentions, loss of privileges, behavioral contracts, mentoring programs, mental health referrals, temporary removals from class and suspensions from school.

A firearms offense, for example, would merit a Level 5 response, which could include expulsion. A tardiness infraction suggests a Level 1 response, which could include a spoken correction or written reflection.

Administrators have discretion in decision-making, and the code says consideration should be given to a student’s age and previous offenses, as well as cultural and linguistic factors, among other circumstances.

Garran said suspensions will still be given in Montgomery, though they will be reserved for serious offenses or as a final step.

For example, he said, a student found possessing a small amount of marijuana in a first offense might be referred for a substance abuse assessment and ordered to do community service rather than simply be removed from school. The idea is “a more therapeutic approach at first,” rather than saying “you’re home for the next four days,” he said.

As a philosophical principle, the conduct code calls for “fair, firm and consistent” disciplinary action but says it should be handed out “in a way to keep students within their regular school program to the greatest extent practicable.”

Susan Burkinshaw, a Montgomery parent who is co-chairwoman of the health and safety committee of the countywide council of PTAs, said the Code of Conduct seems like “a positive step” and noted the importance of a positive school culture. She hopes for an equitable use of the code, with no obscuring of offenses or school incidents.

“I don’t want issues swept under the rug for the sake of good reporting numbers,” she said. “I think when there is pressure not to suspend, then there is also pressure — spoken or unspoken — not to report.”

Teachers consider the code a worthwhile attempt to reflect how Maryland’s discipline changes will be implemented on the ground, said Doug Prouty, president of the Montgomery County Education Association. He said more information and training are needed about the “restorative” practices the document cites.

The code says restorative practices “afford students opportunities to learn from their mistakes, correct any harm that results from their behavior, and restore relationships that are disrupted by their conduct.”

Garran said the conduct code is designed to support Montgomery’s work to reduce suspensions overall and to create equity among student groups. Disparities narrowed last year but persist for African Americans, Hispanics and students with disabilities in high school.

Nicole Joseph, a lawyer with the Maryland Disability Law Center, said the question is whether disparities will be reduced under the new code. “Generally, I think they are moving in the right direction,” she said.

Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr wrote in a preface to the new document that Montgomery’s approach is based on research showing that student suspensions, except as a last resort, have little or no positive impact on student behavior or school safety.

Starr also cited disparities in suspensions: “This is not acceptable,” he wrote.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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