The Liberty County School System’s Code of Conduct in effect when school starts Monday includes a new rule giving students who are suspended out of school the opportunity to do their assignments during suspension and make up tests when they return to school.
The rule also requires students with a second long-term suspension of five days or more to attend the Destinations program at Horizons Learning Center, the district’s alternative program.
The Liberty County Board of Education approved the change during its work session Tuesday.
Dr. Kathy Moody, the system’s executive director of student services, said students can be referred to Destinations, a program for students in grades six through 12 who receive a second suspension of five days or more and have behavioral issues.
Parents and school administrators can choose to have a student attend Destinations for the duration of their suspension, where they will have the opportunity to complete assignments. These students also have access to counselors and school psychologists. Parents are required to provide transportation to Horizons.
The board had a lengthy discussion about out-of-school suspension.
Member Verdell Jones asked, "What is the real consequence for being suspended from school?"
Superintendent Dr. Valya Lee said she had the same question, but not in relation to students making up work.
"We are an institute of learning, and unless there is a gravitas offense — weapons, sex on campus, any other deadly sins — I am not a proponent of school suspension," she said. "Our job is to educate people. … Can you imagine missing five days of school? How much lessons you’ll miss … you’re not going to go home and have a vacation, lay up and watch TV all day. Do your work, so when you come back you’re not left behind."
Lee said the outcome of suspension should be a student ready to behave.
Suspensions count against the district’s College and Career Ready Performance Index Score, Lee said, adding that depending on the nature of the violation that led to the suspension, also factor in a school’s safety rating.
"The old school (strategy) is send them home, we’re not going to give them the work. We’re going to punish them," she said. "But when you send them home, you punish them for conduct. For some, school is their only social outlet, so when they’re not in school they don’t like that. … Educating them is aside from the conduct piece."
Board member Marcia Anderson said the district has gone back and forth over the issue for years. She said many students do not want to be suspended, but some do not want to be in school.
Lee said that not all principals and parents were choosing to send students to Destinations, where they can receive counseling, then follow up with a school counselor at school.
Moody said principals and assistant principals will participate in tribunal training and address chronic discipline. Administrators will have to show what steps they have taken at the school before assigning students to Destinations, she said.
"Sixty-seven percent is the state average of minority students being suspended across the state, and all our middle and high schools are like 12 to 15 points above that," Moody said. "We have a major issue in Liberty County when it comes to out-of-school suspension. … So this is my opinion, we have to do something different for out-of-school suspension if we want to progress academically … and help them get their work made up because they are suffering academically."
Board member Carol Guyett asked whether principals were able to give their input. Moody said the district’s Code of Conduct committee consisted of principals and parents. Committee members went back and forth on the issue but did not take a firm stand, Moody said, adding that some principals allow students to make up the work, while others do not.
"This is my decision and it’s non-negotiable," Lee said. "Our purpose is for children. not adults. I’m going to do whatever is in the best interest of the children. I’ve talked with principals individually, and they’re from the old school. They believe in just sending kids home and it’s on the parents. I said, ‘What if it comes back and affects your test score?’"
Lee said BOE Chairwoman Lily Baker had asked what she will do if schools that receive F’s from the state do not improve. Lee said her answer was that the school system may have to "reconstitute the schools," meaning new principals and new teachers.
"If you keep doing what you’re doing, then you’ll keep getting what you get," Lee said. "If you don’t move you, I’m going to move you because, guess what, my board wants me to move students forward, and that’s what I stand for."
Board member Dr. Yvette Keel said she wants to see how many OSS students return to school with their assignments completed or take exams when they got back. Moody said she hopes to see an improvement on the student at-risk reports every nine weeks.
Keel said she understands both sides of the argument and that there were times, as a school administrator, when she sent a student home and other moments when students were allowed to do their assignments.
Baker said she is glad the board is doing something that should have been done a long time ago.
"Times have changed," Baker said. "Children go home and some parents do not help with anything at home. Now parents will have to help with getting that work done. This is right on time."