Charleston schools may use new discipline plan

Members of the Charleston Area Justice Ministry stand in support of positive disciplinary programs at a Charleston County School Board meeting on March 7. Juvenile in-school arrest data show that African-American students are arrested in disproportionate numbers in the district.

Under a new discipline plan being considered by the Charleston County School Board, students would not necessarily face suspension or expulsion if they show up to school high or start a fight in the cafeteria.

The new Progressive Discipline Plan, up for final approval at the board’s July 25 meeting, decreases punishment for a few offenses while narrowing the definitions of some others.

According to Alternative Programs Director Jennifer Coker, the aim is to reduce suspensions and arrests, which have disproportionately affected minority students in recent years.

“It is about consistency,” Coker said. “It takes the emotion out of an administrator assigning discipline to students so that, no matter who’s sitting across the table from me, if they have this event, this is what I do.”

The new discipline plan deals with three levels of offenses, with Level 3 being the most serious and Level 1 the least serious. Level 3 incidents are criminal offenses requiring a report to law enforcement and can result in suspension or expulsion on a first occurrence.

Drug possession and distribution would remain at Level 3, punishable by three to 10 days of suspension and a possible referral to a constituent board for expulsion in the case of distribution. Students who show up to school intoxicated would be treated as Level 2 offenders and enrolled in a new school-based drug intervention program that Coker said is still in the works.

“Obviously with any drug use, we want to look at intervention because that’s typically a cry for some kind of help,” Coker said.

Some charges are treated differently for younger age groups under the new plan. For example, indecent exposure would be a Level 3 offense for grades 6-12, punishable by up to five days of suspension on a first offense. But in elementary school, it would be a Level 2 offense, and suggested responses for a first offense are “Reteach Expectations,” “Removal from Class” and “Referral to Counselor.”

Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait promoted Coker in January from principal of the reform-oriented Jenkins Academy and tasked her with reviewing the district’s discipline practices. Working with state education officials and a committee that included teachers, Coker developed the new discipline plan and presented it to the board at a July 11 committee meeting.

School board member Tom Ducker said he thought the plan would help with consistency across schools.

“Some people may say we’re getting too lax, but we’ll have to wait and see,” Ducker said.

The No. 1 reason why police are arresting children in Charleston County Schools is a nebulously worded state law against “disturbing schools.” Children as young as nine have received the charge.

The law makes it illegal to interfere, loiter or “act in an obnoxious manner” on school grounds — a phrasing that critics say is too broad. Coker said she found some Charleston County schools had a policy of treating all fights as disturbing-schools violations. She wanted to draw a distinction that not all fights warrant an arrest or suspension.

Under the Progressive Discipline Plan, fighting would remain a Level 2 offense as long as there is “no major injury or disruption.” But the new plan defines disturbing schools more narrowly, identifying it as “behavior that disturbs the learning environment for a significant number of students for an extended period of time” and “requires the intervention of a number of staff members.”

The district has faced scrutiny for its disciplinary practices, including during mass demonstrations and rallies by the ecumenical Charleston Area Justice Ministry. The group wants the district to adopt less punitive practices for students, including the Restorative Justice disciplinary model that makes offenders take responsibility and repair the damage done to victims.

The religious organization has recently been joined in its efforts by Girls Rock Charleston, a group that organizes summer music camps and an after-school program meant as an alternative to incarceration for female students. Organizer Micah Blaise said that while the Progressive Discipline Plan sounds like improvement, she has been frustrated by the lack of progress in other areas like Restorative Justice.

“We’re specifically interested in abolishing student arrests altogether,” Blaise said. “We’d like to see a system where students are not arrested and instead student supports are in place.”

Blaise said it’s important for the disturbing-schools law to change. In working with students who have criminal records, she said she often finds that their first arrest was on a disturbing-schools charge.

Researchers have indicated for years that some public schools are setting up a “school-to-prison pipeline,” and Blaise said she sees it happening in Charleston County.

“What we’ve seen is that it really is a pipeline,” Blaise said.

Reach Paul Bowers at (843) 937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.