Detroit district schools could get more flexibility in meting out student discipline

School leaders would be able to suspend a student after the first instance of fighting. Students who repeatedly disrupt class or are persistently disrespectful could end up in an alternative school. And students would be able to wear shorts — but not short-shorts.

These are among the changes the Detroit school district is proposing to the student code of conduct. The proposal, which would give educators more flexibility in dealing with discipline issues, responds to concerns that emerged after the district moved to cut down on suspensions and develop more consistent discipline practices across all schools. 

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti has given school board members an overview of the proposed changes during committee meetings in recent weeks. The board is likely to take action on the changes at its July 16 meeting.

Vitti said the revamp that the board approved in June 2018 was effective in accomplishing what the district wanted: a more consistent way of dealing with discipline. It also created an emphasis on progressive discipline practices, which require school leaders to consider other options before meting out punishment. 

That shift resulted in steep reductions to the number of suspensions issued across the district. 

The district’s data show that overall, suspensions — in-school suspensions and out-of-school suspensions — were down 27% from April 2018 to April 2019. During that same time period, there was a 63% drop in out-of -school suspensions. The latter is key because Vitti has said he wants to curb the number of students being kicked out of school and not receiving an education.

But some educators, students, and families have complained that the changes came at a cost. At a recent school board meeting that drew hundreds of teachers pushing for higher pay, one teacher received loud applause when she told the board that the code “has not improved climate and culture.”

During the committee meetings, several board members said they want to ensure that students know there are consequences for their behavior.

Corletta Vaughn said she’s heard from school leaders multiple times “that sometimes they feel like their hands are tied, based on policy.”

Here are a few of the key changes:

Earning demerits

A demerit system would be created to deal with low-level behavior problems, such as consistently disrupting class and consistently being disrespectful to staff. A student would get a certain number of points for each incident, and after they’ve amassed 16 points, school leaders can recommend the student for placement in an alternative school, though it wouldn’t be a requirement. A hearing officer would make the final determination.

The reason for the change, Vitti said, is that those lower-level offenses often aren’t covered by the code of conduct, but the behaviors can be disruptive to the school environment. 

“Expect Respect”

The district will launch a new campaign urging students and staff to show respect to each other. 

Vitti said it isn’t uncommon to go into schools “and hear and see from students a level of disrespect for each other. This is also something you see at times between our adults and children.”

A letter will go home to parents outlining the district’s expectations, Vitti said. An anti-bullying campaign will also be connected to the overall campaign, he said. 

Consequences for fighting

Under the current code, a first referral for fighting could result in a parent conference, in-school suspension, and/or participation in restorative practice, which would allow the students to learn the consequences of their actions and make amends.

“What we heard from students and teachers was we’re sending the wrong message if we don’t remove the student from school after a fight,” Vitti said. “But now, there’s more flexibility to make that determination.”

The proposal would give school leaders the flexibility to issue an in-school or out-of-school suspension for students after the first incident of fighting, and allow them to recommend a student for placement in an alternative school after three fights. That placement would have to be approved by a hearing officer. School officials wouldn’t be required to use either approach, and Vitti said that he expects them to tailor the punishment to each individual circumstance. For instance, he said, if a student has never been in trouble before and then got into a fight, “I might not move to an out-of-school suspension.” But it might be appropriate, he said, for a student who was routinely getting into trouble.

An OK to wear shorts

Students are now barred from wearing shorts to school. The proposal would give them that opportunity, within limits. They must adhere to their school’s uniform policy regarding the color of their clothes. And the shorts can’t be too short.

The length of the shorts generated discussion among board members at the committee meetings. All wanted to ensure that the policy would spell out things like how long shorts would have to be. At least one board member said the policy should also spell out how tight the shorts can — or can’t — be in order to be acceptable. 

“We really need to be clear about our expectations,” board member Sonya Mays said.

To read the full list of suggested changes, go to page 9 of the document below.