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What is a ‘serious violation’ in school? Bill seeks to change student code of conduct

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A House education committee gave a favorable vote to a bill that some worry could lead to an increase in students missing school.

The bill removes a list of student conduct that “would not be deemed to be a serious violation” from state statute. That language was there in an effort minimize the time students spend out of school due to long-term suspension or expulsion by limiting those penalties to “serious violations.”

The items currently designated in law as not being serious violations are inappropriate or disrespectful language, not following a “staff directive,” violating dress code, and minor fights that don’t involve weapons or injuries. Under statute, principals have the ability to elevate one of these minor violations to a serious one if they deem it appropriate.

The State Board of Education heard a report earlier this month about student discipline, which showed a considerable jump in crime and violence from pre-pandemic numbers. In 2021-22, there were 11,170 total acts of crime and violence, up from 7,158 in 2019-20, according to this annual Consolidated Data Report.

Short-term suspension and expulsion rates were particularly high when it came to Black and American Indian students, and students of two or more races. Long-term suspension and expulsion rates were particularly high among Black, and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander students.

Rep. Ken Fontenot, R-Nash, said he sees those minor violations as potentially contributing to an unsafe classroom.

“For instance, disrespectful language to a teacher. It’s an unsafe classroom when the teacher is not in control. Non-compliance with staff. What if a student is told to get out of the bus lane when a bus is coming? That is serious,” he said. “Dress code violations. It is probably serious if a young lady is exposing herself in a way that is not good for her or the male students or vice versa. And lastly, a minor physical altercation. Who’s to say what is minor if your bully is six-foot-three and you happen to be four-foot five?”

Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, tried to put an amendment in the bill that would restore the stricken language, but her amendment failed. She said that suspension from school isn’t minor. She said she was a juvenile court judge, and kids who are suspended are more likely to go into the juvenile criminal justice system.

“We’re just saying, the worst thing a child needs is a long-term suspension if it is a minor offense. A dress code, a not-getting-out-of-the-bus-line — that is minor. Do not allow that to lead to the most draconian punishment of an out-of-school suspension,” she said.

The bill also would require that “governing bodies shall use best practices to develop and enforce discipline policies that do not discriminate against students on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, or disability.”

In addition, the bill adds language saying that “governing board policies” should include measures that will be used to help a student during suspension, “mitigate learning loss,” and encourage school officials to use in-school suspension over punishment that takes a student out of school.

Rep. Cecil Brockman, D-Guilford, voted against Morey’s amendment and said he felt the need to explain why because he normally supports his fellow Democrats.

He said he agreed with Fontenot that some of those supposedly minor violations are actually pretty major.

“I think the lessons that we’re teaching our kids matters,” he said. “And if we just say those type of things aren’t major, I think that that says a lot about why we’re in the situation that we’re in now.”

Rep. Julie von Haefen, D-Wake, said that the language in this bill spelling out which violations are minor was put there in order to keep students in school and out of the criminal justice system, especially those who are disproportionately given in- and out-of-school suspensions and expulsions. She said that when the bill putting that language in statute originally passed, it did so with broad support.

“We know that Black students … are continually punished in bigger numbers for disrespectful language. We know … that girls are punished more for dress code violations than boys are,” she said. “There’s the reason that examples were put into this bill because they’re guiding principles that have guided our local school districts to make sure that they’re not punishing kids disproportionately for these specific things.”

Rep. Marvin Lucas, D-Cumberland, said he recognizes discipline is a problem in schools, but he hopes there is a way to to do something more than respond to bad behavior.

“Education is best, and discipline is certainly best when it is proactive rather than reactive,” he said. “This bill attempts to be reactive to a circumstance that we admit is out of hand.”

He suggested that there could be programs at the preschool level or efforts to get parents involved.

Back in 2021 when a similar bill was being considered, Disability Rights North Carolina put out a statement in opposition, pointing out that a 10-day suspension, which the statement said is the minimum length for a long-term suspension, is 5% of the school year.

“Already, Black students and students with disabilities are being suspended at significantly higher rates than White students. Black students are also punished more severely than white students for similar behaviors,” the statement read. “Disproportionality exists in our schools even though Black and white students misbehave at similar rates.”

The bill goes next to the Judiciary 1 Committee of the House.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.