A majority of Madison School Board members say they want to add more discretion to the front end of the district’s expulsion process, calling the current approach too rigid.
The discussion follows the highly publicized case of sixth-grader Dereian Brown, who was expelled last month for allegedly bringing a BB gun to school. However, board members said the issue has been bubbling up for some time and is broader than any one case.
At a work session this week and in later interviews, several board members said the current approach, while more flexible than the zero-tolerance policies of years past, still too often ignores individual circumstances and lands too many students in lengthy, stressful expulsion hearings.
Discretion currently resides largely at the end of the process with the board, board member TJ Mertz said. By that point, “families have been put through hell,” he said.
The district is in the second school year of a new conduct code called the Behavior Education Plan. The approach seeks to keep more students in the classroom by reducing suspensions and expulsions, though finding the right balance between consequences and compassion has been a struggle for the district.
The board hires independent examiners to hear expulsion cases and recommend punishment. The board can accept, reject or modify any expulsion recommendation after reviewing transcripts from the hearing. Comments by board members this week suggest they are seeing too many expulsion cases that they deem unnecessary.
“It shouldn’t come to us, these really borderline things,” board member Dean Loumos said at Monday’s work session. “Some of these things are really head-shaking.”
Board member Michael Flores said in an interview he’d like to see “a little bit of common sense in certain situations” so that “fewer families get caught up in these situations.”
In the Dereian Brown case, administrators acknowledged that the boy did not threaten anyone with the BB gun and that no one on staff saw him in possession of it. He allegedly confessed after the fact to having had it at school.
Under district policy, a student who brings any type of gun to school, whether a firearm or a toy gun, is automatically recommended for expulsion. Dereian’s case led some community members to criticize the district for seemingly going overboard in its punishment.
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Administrators initially sought to expel the boy for two semesters. While the board upheld a hearing examiner’s recommendation to expel the boy, it allowed Dereian to be eligible for immediate reinstatement and he returned within days.
Currently, the district’s coordinator for progressive discipline reviews each expulsion recommendation before it goes to a hearing. If procedures were not followed or if there is not sufficient evidence, the coordinator can dismiss the case, said district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson.
During the 2014-15 school year, 52 students were recommended for expulsion, of which eight cases were dismissed. Twenty-two students ended up being expelled.
While signaling that they want to expand discretion somewhere along the process, board members acknowledged that people’s biases could unconsciously bleed into a process that is too flexible.
One goal of the Behavior Education Plan was to strip out personal biases so that all students are treated consistently for similar behaviors regardless of race, gender or cultural background.
“We want to have something objective in place, but on the flip side, we have to find that balance, because we can’t completely disregard extenuating factors, including the student’s age,” said board member Anna Moffit.
Board President James Howard said he would need some convincing to give school principals too much discretion, as that could lead to a patchwork of approaches. Board member Ed Hughes acknowledged that concern but said “maybe that risk is outweighed by the genuine costs we see of still having kind of a policy that ties our hands from doing what people think is the right thing to do in individual circumstances.”
Mertz floated the idea of a three-person panel that would need to sign off on an expulsion recommendation before it proceeded to a hearing. Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham called the idea “worth thinking about,” saying a small group of trained personnel such as psychologists and social workers could vet each case.
Cheatham said her administrative team will consider the board feedback and return this spring with formal recommendations on how the expulsion process could be revised.