JCPS stopped expelling students sometime in the 1980s, but why? - WDRB 41 Louisville News

JCPS stopped expelling students sometime in the 1980s, but why?

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Some JCPS students and teachers say they don't feel safe in the classroom, but the district refuses to kick anyone out of school.

Bad student behavior has become a hot topic, just ask Erica Hector. She was a JCPS substitute teacher and the girls head basketball coach at Thomas Jefferson Middle School.

Last December, she came away from a game against Knight Middle School with an injury.

“I really did get beat up by a middle schooler and there was nothing I could do,” Hector said. "It was a basketball game…we lost. A player on their team, when we were going to shake hands, she was being belligerent and injured my wrist."

Hector said she never heard if the student was punished or suspended.

"When she did it, she had a smirk on her face,” Hector said. It was like we won the game and I'm coming at you.”

The district says since August, 438 students have been suspended in elementary schools, 1,896 have been suspended in middle schools and more than 2,300 have been suspended in high school – that puts the total of suspensions across the whole district at 4,672. 

That's a six and a half percent increase this year over last school year. However, JCPS Spokesperson Bonnie Hackbarth says the total number of days students have been suspended for is down.

"We recognize that suspension is not beneficial to learning,” she said. “We want to make sure consequences are appropriate, but we still have an opportunity to teach those students."

Hector admits she had words with the opposing team's coach over the player's actions, but says the district never listened to her side of the story. She later had surgery on her wrist and was fired in March because of the way the district said she handled the incident.

She and other teachers complain about a lack of support from the district over bad student behavior. Attorneys for the teachers’ union even issued a letter over safety concerns.

JCPS policy and second chances

"If we put a 15-year-old or a 14-year-old on the street, we have just diminished that child's chance of success forever,” JCPS Chief Operations Officer Mike Raisor said.

Raisor says punishment can be harsh for students who act up, including those making false threats at local schools. But some parents complain students are taken out of school for various behavior issues and suspended -- and then put right back in class.

"We have a policy within JCPS where we don't expel students,” Raisor said. “I think at the end of the day we have to remember these are kids and kids deserve a second chance."

The district says expulsion is an option if behavior is serious enough, but admits JCPS stopped expelling students around the 1980s.

Officials believe every student can learn in a school within the district. 

"Students with behavior issues can be assigned to an alternative school, which enables them to learn and ensures the safety of students and staff,” Raisor said. “There is accountability and going to an alternative school is serious. Being cited, being arrested is serious, but I wouldn't want something I did as a prank when I was 15-years-old to determine the rest of my life."

"A good example is a charge we see often, disorderly conduct, where a student is acting unruly in a classroom -- but hasn't hurt anybody -- but is acting out,” Christopher Brown said.

He is the chief of the juvenile division at the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office. Brown said the Jefferson County Attorney's Office is consistently seeing around 800 to 900 cases from JCPS per year.

He says some of the offenses are best dealt with through a diversion program, community service or restorative justice -- rather than formal court proceedings.

Diversion is a program that allows people to stay out of jail and if the terms of the diversion agreement are completed within six months, no formal charges are filed in juvenile court.

"A vast majority of our charges are kids who are between 13 and 17-years-old, anyone younger than that, I think, schools try to handle internally,” Brown said.

So far this school year, his office has reviewed 242 school cases and more than 40 percent were recommended for diversion because of a change in the law, which has made more kids eligible. During the last school year, there were 993 school cases reviewed and only about a quarter were recommended for diversion.

With kids in diversion, prosecutors say smaller offenses aren't clogging up the court system and for students, that's a second chance to get back on track faster.

"Nine hundred cases does sound like a lot of cases until you see how big JCPS is,” Brown said. “The latest number -- if they have over 104,000 students -- when you look at that and the overall student population in Jefferson County, it’s really less than one percent of students who are involved with the criminal justice system in any way during the school year."

Hector says she is still traumatized about what happened to her. She got a letter from the state wanting to hear her case about a year after the incident. The Educational Professional Standards Board said last month her case is being assigned to a prosecutor who will further investigate.

But that has Hector wondering, ‘why now?’

"Maybe we should have heard her out, because exhibit A she did have to have surgery,” Hector said. “Maybe exhibit B, she was telling the truth the whole time."

She hopes speaking out will bring change in JCPS and more support for teachers.

"We understand that you can only perform at your best as a student, as a teacher, when you feel safe, when you feel secure,” Hackbarth said. “So we have a variety of things that we do to help ensure that environmental things like controlling access to our schools, training for teachers and administrators in things like de-escalation."

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