Board of Education considers revisions in suspension policy

Suspensions at PHS may soon be replaced with alternative forms of punishment as school board members are currently discussing new approaches to discipline.

These alternatives are referred to as “restorative justice,” and they prompt students to right a wrong they have committed, rather than simply punishing them.

The Board of Education believes that the restorative justice system could help students receive more appropriate means of discipline and save students from having long lasting issues with their permanent records.

Superintendent Steve Cochrane recently met with the PHS and John Witherspoon Middle School administrations to discuss the suspension protocol.

“[The meeting reiterated]the legal requirements of suspensions. It was also a talk about consistency. If a student at John Witherspoon Middle School does something wrong, how is it defined, and [is] it a suspendable offense? [And if a student at] the high school does the same thing, should we use suspension or restorative justice?” Cochrane said.

The board developed their idea to alter the disciplinary system upon the realization that certain incidents within the district needed to be dealt with in a way that previously wasn’t addressed by district policies.

“[It] began with an incident that happened in the spring of this year. The community was talking about [the incident], and we were limited in what we could say. So, we [got to thinking] that we need more language and conversation around incidents of bias. This inspired meetings as an administrative team to discuss [how to manage school-wide issues],” Cochrane said.

While they may be taking a different approach to discipline, the board still wants to stand firm on when suspension is the appropriate course of action.

“There are some things that we have to suspend students for such as fighting, bringing weapons to school, etc. We’re trying to suspend students only when they are putting another student or students at risk,” said Dafna Kendal, head of the district’s Facilities Committee.

As discussions progress further on the topic, board officials continue to uphold the benefit of the policies based on the evidence that it can improve student culture and dynamics.

“Research says that [restorative justice] reduces the amount of infractions overall. [As] students feel responsible to one another and to the community, they’re less likely to [misbehave causing] the overall number of incidents [to go] down,” Cochrane said.

Although, other board members are reluctant to believe that the new practices will affect the amount of disciplinary cases.

“Young people make mistakes. That’s what they do. So I wouldn’t expect [the new disciplinary actions] to affect the number of mistakes that young people make. But I do expect the consequences to be more appropriate, and allow for students to learn [from their mistakes],”  said Patrick Sullivan, President of the Board of Education.

The board has had to push their plans to implement new disciplinary practices. Administrators are still unsure  when the enactment of the new protocols will take place, however at the earliest, the shift from suspensions to restorative justices may be applied as soon as the end of the year.

“We initially planned to have something for the opening of school, but as we met with members of the community, they encouraged us to spend more time talking with students and getting more input,” Cochrane said.

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