Recently, the Madison Metropolitan School Board adopted a pair of new behavior plans meant to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions in the district, particularly the punishments that are disproportionately handed out to students of color.
I'd like to applaud the school board for taking a serious look at the district's expulsion rate. It is one of the advantages of traditional public schools that they can set district-wide policy and have it immediately go into effect. Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham's previous employer, Chicago Public Schools, released a report back in February showing that the expulsion rate was far higher in charter schools than in traditional schools. It will be harder to pass meaningful changes in a district littered with charters, to say nothing about trying to do it with voucher schools in the mix.
However, I wonder if these new codes will be enough. Even with impressive goals to keep students in schools, the disciplinary process is still mostly carried out by the school in question. Attorney Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, who represented the family of a recently expelled student, proposed that the district create a position specifically to answer questions and to help parents through disciplinary proceedings.
School Board president Ed Hughes is not a fan of the idea.
"We can have a disagreement about what is best for a kid, or how to apply the policy, without being adversaries," said Hughes in an interview with the Cap Times.
I'm not sure of that. Two parties disagreeing on the outcome of an issue is the core of our adversarial justice system. In discipline cases, school officials act as the prosecution and the defense. Even with the best of intentions, such a system is going to lead to conflicts of interest. A neutral party who is there to explain but not enforce policies would help lessen those conflicts.
Both the old and new behavior plans have families primarily working with staff from the home school and, later in the process, a whole host of people from the central office. The process can create confusion for the family as there are a bunch of people involved and it is not always clear who the main contact should be. When a family struggles to get their questions answered, they should have an option other than hiring their own lawyer.
There are also resource problems. The school staff that are helping parents in these matters are already overburdened -- they don't have the time to take on the duty of trying to keep a kid in school while navigating a new behavioral code they aren't familiar with.
As Hughes also said in his Cap Times interview:
"Certainly we need to have a person available to answer questions.... I don't know that that would be a full-time position. I hope it wouldn't be. I'm thinking we'll have significantly fewer people enmeshed in that system than we have had recently."
It's a nice thought, and Hughes might be right. In that case, why not make it a contract position? Get this consultant on a contract for two years and then review how much her or his services were used. It would be a great litmus test for the new behavior plan. Are expulsions and suspensions down and the consultant didn't have a lot of work to do? Then, you were right and you don't need to have the consultant anymore.