Prince George’s outlines new disciplinary policy in student handbook

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately reported the drop in suspensions in the Prince Georges’s school system. There were 15,615 suspensions in the 2011-2012 school year and 13,951 in 2012-2013, a drop of 1,664. The story has been corrected.

September 18, 2013

Prince George’s County schools have a new discipline policy that officials hope will reduce the number of suspensions and keep students in school.

The policy, outlined in a handbook recently distributed to the county’s 123,000 students, reduces the number of offenses that could include suspension as a punishment and places a maximum number of days a student can be kept out of class for a specific offense.

The school system now has a three-day limit on suspensions for students who have committed “soft offenses,” such as disrespect, insubordination and disruptions in class. The previous policy did not specify maximum penalties for such offenses, leaving it up to the schools to decide.

“Schools could administer any level of discipline they wanted,” said Daryl Williams, the district’s chief of student services, adding that the definitions of offenses were overly broad and vague and that punishments were too subjective. “Our goal is to ensure that students are in school and minimize the number of days that students are removed from schools.”

Prince George’s had 13,951 suspensions during the 2012-2013 school year, down 1,664 from the previous year.

The changes in Prince George’s are in line with proposed school discipline regulations being considered by Maryland state education officials. Local school boards are being asked to move away from zero-tolerance punishments and to scale back the number of suspensions. Educators worry that students are losing critical instruction time and falling behind their peers.

The student handbook is the first such policy guidebook that provides the school system’s do’s and don’ts in one place, and it is also the first to be distributed to all students. The handbook is usually made available only to new students.

Some of the information, including details about attendance, behavior on school buses and graduation requirements (21 credits), has been part of the district’s code of conduct for years. This is the first time the book included sections on cyberbullying, social media and sexual misconduct.

“Before, we addressed hazing,” said Jacqueline Naves, supervisor of pupil personnel services. “Now students are using Facebook, Instagram, texting, and we want to address those types of media and any other if it comes back into the schoolhouse. . . . Years ago, you didn’t hear about sexting. Now it’s all over.”

The handbook says that the school system does not govern the personal use of technology outside of school but that if a student uses social media to “create a threat to students, staff or administration within the school environment and impedes opportunities for learning, the school will apply disciplinary action.”

The punishment for cyberbullying can range from detention and referral to a school psychologist to suspension.

Students are not allowed to cyberbully, engage in sexting or use their cellphones on school property, according to the handbook. They cannot wear sagging pants, pants below their waists or leggings that are not covered “with clothing long enough to cover the buttocks.”

Earnest Moore, president of the county’s PTA Council, said the new handbook is a useful tool for students and parents.

“I think the handbook is great,” Moore said. “Before, it was broken down into different individual documents and you had to go look for those documents. If you wanted to know about graduation requirements, you had to find it. That wasn’t in the code of conduct.”

Ovetta Wiggins writes about K-12 education.
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