Education

The Jefferson County Board of Education is considering revising guidelines related to student behavior and discipline. The goal is to make the district’s policies more fair and racially equitable.

Here are the major proposed changes that could be up for a vote on May 25.

Limiting Suspensions In Pre-K Through Third Grade

Board members are considering a ban on most suspensions in Pre-K through third grade. Current policy allows JCPS to suspend primary school students in “exceptional cases where there are safety issues for the child or others.”

The district came under scrutiny for its elementary school suspension practices after a 2018 Courier Journal investigation found soaring rates of suspension and disproportionate suspensions of Black students in the early grades. Since then, the number of suspensions has dropped, but racial disparities remain. 

In the 2018-2019 school year, the last full year before the pandemic, JCPS elementary schools suspended 4,339 students. More than half of them were Black, even though Black students make up only about 35% of the elementary student population.

The district could not immediately provide data on the number of students suspended in the grades in question.

Decades of academic research show American teachers and administrators disproportionately suspend Black students and other students of color, and that the practice has long-term negative educational and emotional impacts on children, including in the early grades.

If the board approves the change, JCPS would join a number of school districts in other states that have also banned suspensions among the youngest students, including school districts in St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Houston and Minneapolis. 

The policy change would still allow schools to suspend students in cases where the student violates a law, such as committing assault, arson, sexual harassment or theft. In cases where there is an alleged illegal act, school staff would have to go through a formal process known as a “threat assessment” to determine if the behavior constitutes a safety threat to the child or others. 

“Depending on the outcome of the Threat Assessment, schools may need to briefly suspend to ensure safety and develop a support plan,” the proposed change reads.

The suspension of any student Pre-K through third grade would have to get approval from the district.

Harsher Consequences For Racial Slurs

Students who use racial slurs or other hate speech would be subject to harsher consequences under a change proposed by student members of the Student Support and Behavior Intervention Handbook committee. The handbook lists expectations for student behavior, defines infractions and describes how those infractions should be handled by schools.

The current student handbook lists using racial slurs and hate speech as a Level 1 to Level 3 behavior. That’s out of four levels, with Level 4 being the most serious. The change would shift racial slurs and hate speech to a Level 2 to Level 4 behavior. That would mean schools would be required to treat the behavior as a bigger offense, at the very least involve administration and possibly use a long-term suspension as a consequence.

Student members of the committee, Atherton sophomore Josiah Finley and senior Damon Duvall, Jr., brought forward the proposal after hearing from their peers that schools are not sufficiently responding to complaints about hate speech towards students of color. 

Clearer Definitions, Less Subjectivity

The student handbook committee has put forward several changes to clarify definitions of behaviors and consequences in order to reduce subjectivity. Research shows broad or subjective definitions of behaviors are more likely to be used by teachers and administrators to disproportionately discipline Black students and other students of color. 

The committee has recommended removing “excessive noise” from the list of negative behaviors. 

“This code is highly subjective and could result in inequitable applications,” a committee document reads. 

Furthermore, committee members said there are other codes such as “talking out in class,” and “violation of cell phone policy,” that could cover the disruptive behavior in a less subjective way.

The committee has recommended clarifications that could allow fighting to be punished less harshly, especially if there is no physical injury. 

JCPS officials say state statute requires the application of assault codes when fighting results in physical injury. Assault is always a Level 3 or Level 4 offense, meaning suspension is on the table for any fighting that results in physical injury. 

Translations Available For the First Time

Currently the Student Support and Behavior Intervention Handbook is only available in English. Members of the review committee said this made it hard for students or family members with limited English language skills to understand behavioral expectations, the resources in the handbook and  students’ rights. 

District spokesperson Renee Murphy said JCPS does not automatically translate the handbook and other written materials.

“We work closely with our families and any material from this book or any other district materials will be translated upon request,” she said.

The committee has proposed having the text translated and made available in at least six languages, including the district’s most-spoken languages of Spanish and Arabic.

JCPS has more than 12,000 students who are learning English. Decades-old federal education laws require districts to make important materials such as student handbooks available for families in a language they can understand.

Jess Clark is WFPL's Education and Learning Reporter.