Board revising school code of conduct

Document would provide more penalties guidance

May 09, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

Faced with a nasty new world of bad behavior in its schools -- from cyberbullying to assaults on teachers -- the Anne Arundel County school board is revamping its Code of Student Conduct for the first time in at least six years.

Features of the proposed code include offenses involving modern technology, such as the misuse of computers and camera cellular phones, and infractions not explicitly stated in the current code, such as hazing and displaying the Confederate flag.

The revised code also would give school administrators more guidance on what penalties to assign.

"The more specific we are, the safer our buildings can be because students know what the consequences are," said Jose Torres, assistant superintendent for student services.

The code of conduct is a document given to students at the start of each school year to inform them of unacceptable behavior and the consequences.

School officials say the new version, which is scheduled for a school board vote next month, would ensure greater consistency in the handling of disciplinary problems. It also would include a section for elementary school discipline, which does not exist now.

Many school systems in the Baltimore area update discipline codes once a year or as the need arises. The student code of Baltimore County schools, for example, was revised after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to allow students to carry cell phones in schools.

Anne Arundel County Superintendent Eric J. Smith said he was prompted to seek changes in the code of conduct after learning that discipline sometimes is doled out inconsistently.

"There should be, within reason, a degree of consistency, not a wide range of responses to students at different schools, or even within schools," Smith said.

The superintendent also said he was troubled by data that show black students are being expelled from schools at a higher rate than the general population. Black students make up about 20 percent of the student population, but represented 44 percent of the students who were expelled in the past school year.

But Smith stopped short of saying that black students are given stiffer penalties.

"I don't think we have any evidence that any one group of students is being punished more harshly," he said.

The new code should leave less room for interpretation, Smith said. "We're trying to be proactive by narrowing the [disciplinary] response."

Annapolis High School student Tim Wong said he worries about a code that limits the discretion of teachers and principals.

"The teachers definitely are intelligent enough to make their own judgment," said the senior class president. "Especially because they're the ones actually in class with the student."

Compared with the proposed version, the current code is general and gives administrators broad leeway in how to punish students. It lists 36 potential offenses and a wide range of penalties, such as a trip to the principal's office or expulsion from the school.

The new code would assign six levels of severity to more than 60 types of infractions and include specific penalties based on the level of severity. It also requires notification of police or fire officials when certain offenses occur, including violent bullying, setting a fire or bringing a weapon to school.

Under the code, an elementary school pupil who cheats on a test would be considered to have committed a Level 1 or 2 offense. The teacher could choose from a range of penalties, ranging from a verbal warning to a parent conference.

If a middle school pupil or a high school student assaults a teacher -- a Level 6 offense -- the code prescribes more severe penalties. An administrator would have to expel the student and possibly contact police. Suspensions and expulsions can be appealed to the school board.

A committee of a dozen administrators, six parents, six school staff members, a county police lieutenant and a cleric drafted the revised version over the past year and a half.

Steve Johnson, an Annapolis parent who is on the committee, said he wishes the new code was written in a language more "kid-friendly." But he said it is an improvement over the current version, which was "disorganized ... incomplete and hard to follow."

Revising the code is part of a wider strategy school officials have launched to make schools safe. Some schools are using conflict-resolution programs and rewarding positive behavior. "This will not be the cure-all," Torres said. "Ultimately, it's about relationships [between students] and relationships between adults and students."

The proposed Code of Student Conduct can be viewed at www.aacps.org. In the Board of Education section, click on "paperless board meetings" to find the May 5 report on the code.

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