JCPS says it is 'crunched for time' on making changes to code of conduct

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- After months of debate, revisions to the JCPS student code of conduct were unanimously approved by the school board on Tuesday night.

The new guidelines -- aimed at providing more clarity and equity in the way the school district addresses student behavior and discipline -- will take effect when school starts on Aug. 10.

Superintendent Donna Hargens says the revised code and student handbook "moves us away from reactionary and exclusionary practices and toward proactive approaches."

Katy Zeitz, a JCPS assistant superintendent who oversees the district's alternative schools, said the key to the revised code of conduct is "implementation with fidelity." In the past, some schools have handed out disciplinary action that wasn't consistent with revisions made to the code of conduct, she noted.

"This design will enable us to look more accurately at data, trends and concerns across schools to ensure the appropriate supports are provided to students, schools and staff," said Katy Zeitz, the JCPS assistant superintendent who oversees the district's alternative schools. "We want to ensure that our students are receiving similar consequences for similar behaviors."

School board members applauded Zeitz and other district officials for their efforts to address concerns that have been raised by some employees and community members, calling the seven-month process "hard and challenging at times."

"It's been hard because the issue is hard," said David Jones Jr., chairman of the school board.

Diane Porter, vice-chairwoman of the board, said she has lost sleep of the importance of the code of conduct changes.

"Yes, we are concerned about the safety of our children and the safety of our staff," Porter said. "This is about equity and fairness for kids."

The district's code of conduct committee -- a group of people selected by the district to revise conduct and discipline procedures every two years -- met from January through March and initially brought recommendations to the school board during an April 26 work session.

Following public outcry and protests over some of the recommendations, Hargens reconvened the committee in May to address fears and concerns that the district was reducing punishments for some offenses that typically removed thousands of students from class each year.

Zeitz said  added that there will be "weekly data pulls" to look at trends to see how the district can better support its schools.

In addition, district officials will be doing a better job at tracking offenses by grade level to ensure consequences are age appropriate, Zeitz said.

Board member Lisa Willner said she was happy with the changes, but one sticking point for her was the "developmental appropriateness on some of the consequences for pre-kindergarten students," and made a motion to remove short-term suspension for failure to respond to questions or requests from staff, which passed 6-1 with board member Linda Duncan voting in oppostion.

"If we are excluding children from class, there needs to be a really compelling reason," she said.

Some board members, employees and community members say they are worried the district is rushing into these revisions with only two weeks left before the start of the 2016-17 year. 

"There is a great deal of work that still needs to be done," said Barbara Boyd, a retired JCPS teacher who urged the school board to delay voting on code of conduct on Tuesday. "There is not enough time, we only have 14 more days before the start of school."

Hargens has insisted that there is enough time to train administrators and teachers on the new language and disciplinary actions outlined in the code. 

At the start of every school year, students and parents are tasked with reading the district's code of conduct, which describes how the district expects students to conduct themselves, as well as the consequences they can face if they misbehave. After they read the 48-page document, each of the 101,000 students -- and their parents -- must sign that they've read it.

One of the major changes between the current code of conduct is the elimination of the deliberate disruption category. Instead of having one general category, it's broken into nine more specific categories, such as talking out of class, horseplay and spitting.

Rashaad Abdur-Rahman, director of the city’s Office for Safe and Healthy Neighborhoods, was one of five people to address the school board about the changes.

"In many ways, this is a defining moment for JCPS," he said. "This is an opportunity to lead the country in terms of what it means to be a compassionate, data driven and equitable school district. "We have relied for too long on murky, subjective disciplinary categories like 'deliberate disruption' to remove children from classrooms."

Abdur-Rahman said "now is not the time for divisive fear mongering and irresponsible hyperbole about lawless schools."

"Now is the time to lean into the data, apply practices that are evaluated and proven and lead the country with the best school system imaginable."

Lawrence Wilbon with the Louisville Urban League encouraged JCPS officials to "strictly monitor the code of conduct within schools" to ensure consistency.

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