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| NEWS | Rules for Engagement

Revolutionizing Discipline, With a Flowchart

Harsh discipline policies are falling out of favor across the country, but Broward County, Fla., is hoping to do away with them entirely.

Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale and one of the nation's largest school systems, approved last week a major overhaul of the district's discipline policies. In place of a routine that has seen large swaths of students incarcerated, the district is implementing a system based on restorative justice and forged with input from a broad coalition of local organizations and people.

"We've done away with the phrase 'zero tolerance,' " Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said at a press conference. "Students will not become collateral damage of the way things used to be."

The new system offers guidance in two forms: A memo of understanding that details terms of discipline, and a flowchart ("decision matrix") that distills that memorandum into the bare essentials. Both forms make clear when exactly school trouble warrants police action. The new structure does not eliminate police influence in schools, or deprive officers of any jurisdiction. This shift isn't in power, but in mindset, establishing among all parties involved in the Broward County legal system—school board, administrators, judges, attorneys, police, and sheriff—that students deserve more tolerance than they've yet been given.

District officials want to make police action strictly a last recourse. Only after five successive levels of intervention fail should an arrest be made, barring imminent danger or a felony. That's an abrupt shift in a county so rife in disciplinary action that many have referenced students throwing M&M's as a reason for suspension. (Wasting chocolate is a crime, but still.)

The centerpiece of the agreement seems to be Step Three, the point at which an officer has been brought in to consult (but not take action) and must assess a situation. In many systems, this step can lead to suspensions both in and out of school because of zero-tolerance policies. In place of suspensions and arrests, Broward plans to lean heavily on its newly implemented PROMISE Program, which utilizes positive discipline techniques.

The discipline guidance itself might not be mind-blowing, but the circumstances of its creation are a groundbreaking approach for a district beleaguered by high disciplinary rates, especially among minorities. Broward County has just over 260,000 students; of those, about 100,000 are black, and they've been suspended at over twice the rate of white students.

Broward County NAACP President Marsha Ellison has been at the forefront of the effort, and has been working for years with groups to mitigate the school-to-prison pipeline. But the organization hadn't found a political ally among top district brass until the arrival in 2011 of Superintendent Robert Runcie, who made it a clear priority, starting with changing the code of conduct.

"If we don't find ways to turn this around and give [students] an opportunity, we're wasting a lot of lives," Runcie said.

–Ross Brenneman

| NEWS | K-12 Parents and the Public

Houston Dad Learns Lessons Volunteering at School

Somebody get Terrance Harris some Advil.

After volunteering all day at his son's elementary school in Houston last month, Harris' knees ached from sitting in tiny chairs, and he was exhausted from a day filled with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, cutting construction paper, playing learning games, and reading books with students.

But it was a small price to pay for the lessons he learned and the sense of pride felt by his 6-year-old son, Nigel, because Harris participated in Gleason Elementary School's Watch DOGS (Dads of Great Students) program.

"I have a newfound respect for teachers," said Harris, a sportswriter and father of two who is a former college classmate of mine. "It's crazy. I don't know how they do it."

Watch DOGS is a K-12 father-engagement initiative run by the National Center for Fathering in Kansas City, Mo. Two fathers in Springdale, Ark., founded the program following the tragic school shootings at a Jonesboro, Ark. middle school in 1998 that left four students and one teacher dead.

Watch DOGS fathers must commit to volunteer all day at their child's school. From greeting the students in the morning and reading the announcements to assisting teachers in the classroom, dads are assigned a variety of tasks all over campus and not just with their own child.

The program's goals are to provide students with positive male role models who emphasize the importance of education, and to give schools volunteers who can assist with creating a culture of increased security.

Gleason Principal Melody Goffney said traditionally there are very few men on elementary campuses, so Watch DOGS provides her 866 students with the opportunity to have a strong male presence on campus. This school year almost every day is booked with a dad.

Gleason is one of the more than 3,200 schools in 46 states and the District of Columbia that have Watch DOGS programs. Last year, about 250,000 men volunteered at their child's school. Almost by default, most school-related notices, meetings, and requests for volunteers falls on the mother, whether she works outside the home or not. Watch DOGS messages men directly, inviting them at first to have pizza or doughnuts with their children and then asking them to spend one day of the year at the school.

Harris, who also has a 12-year-old daughter, said he's committed to being an involved dad—especially since he's still considered "cool," for now.

–Karla Scoon Reid

| NEWS | Politics K-12

Waiver States Get More Time on Teacher-Evaluation Rollout

Once again, the U.S. Department of Education is giving states with No Child Left Behind Act waivers more time to decide if they want an extra year to implement a key piece of their teacher-evaluation systems. First, the deadline to apply for a one-year waiver extension was Sept. 30. Then, it got moved to Oct. 31.

Now, it's Nov. 22.

The latest extension allows states to postpone using student growth on state tests as a factor in personnel decisions for up to one additional year—until the 2016-17 school year. Originally, the waiver guidelines required states do this by the 2015-16 school year.

The department has also released a set of FAQs in which it seeks to clarify what these "waiver waivers" are, and are not. As one example, federal officials make clear that if a state does not seek a waiver extension, an individual school district cannot do so on its own. In addition, the FAQs emphasize that this flexibility only pertains to federal waiver guidelines, and does not have any effect on teacher-evaluation timelines that may be in a state's law. Also, districts or schools receiving federal School Improvement Grant or Teacher Incentive Fund money are bound by the teacher-evaluation deadlines set by those grant programs, which will not be waived.

Through the FAQs, federal officials also issued a stern warning to Race to the Top states: Although a state can apply for a waiver extension, it would also have to successfully amend its winning application—something federal officials seem especially reluctant to let states do.

—Michele McNeil

| NEWS | School Law Blog

Unusual Supreme Court Mix: Chemical Weapons, Education

What does a U.S. Supreme Court case about a poisonous love triangle and an international treaty on chemical weapons have to do with U.S. education policy?

Potentially a lot, according to several groups that filed friend-of-the-court briefs in a case argued before the justices on Nov. 5. They worry that world treaties on education and family law might require the federal government to wade into policies that are traditionally the province of the U.S. states.

The case of Bond v. United States (No. 12-158) involves a 1993 international treaty on chemical weapons that was ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1997. The treaty required signatory nations, among other things, to adopt criminal laws prohibiting individuals from doing anything with chemical weapons that nations couldn't do.

Federal authorities used such a law to charge Carol Anne Bond, a Pennsylvania microbiologist who had used chemicals to attempt 24 separate times to poison a woman who had become impregnated by Bond's husband. Ms. Bond pleaded guilty to two counts of possession of chemical weapons under the federal statute, but she reserved her right to appeal.

Her lawyers contend that her case is one of an ordinary poisoning, not chemical warfare, and that the U.S. Constitution limits the authority of Congress to enact treaties when the resulting federal statute intrudes on state prerogatives, such as basic criminal matters in Ms. Bond's case.

That's where some education groups chime in.

"International human rights treaties are increasingly invoked not only to direct national policies ... but also domestic laws that are solely of state or local concern," says the brief on Bond's side filed by the Home School Legal Defense Association, based in Purcellville, Va.

The group said it was particularly concerned about the language in international treaties about education and family law, and what that could mean for the U.S. states if the federal government has unfettered power to implement such treaties.

A decision in the case is expected by next June.

—Mark Walsh

Vol. 33, Issue 12, Pages 12, 17

Published in Print: November 13, 2013, as Blogs of the Week
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