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Schools studying what gets a student expelled

[07/31/01] Sleeping in class can be distracting to others and gum chewing, too, Donald Oakes said, but the Vicksburg Warren School District superintendent doesn’t consider either offense will be used to build grounds to expel a student.

That’s why Oakes, school board attorney Jim Chaney and district principals will review the School Safety Act of 2001 this week. The state law, which took effect July 1, creates a roadmap for public schools to follow in order to expel students in upper grades who present chronic disruptions, but don’t break major rules or laws addressing weapons, violence or narcotics.

The law allows expulsion of such students if referred to principals three times in one academic year for documented violations of disciplinary codes. For students in lower grades, the law requires counseling and development of a personalized behavior modification plan after a second offense.

Some districts are embracing the law as a guide to maintain or restore order in public schools, but Oakes said he’s concerned that the law could be misinterpreted by principals, teachers or parents.

He said it really covers only the “most serious” offenses.

“Some people might think (the law) means we’re going to expel people who get sent to the office for rolling their eyes or talking,” Oakes said, adding that only the school board can expel students. “I want to be sure we’re on the same page. Just because a student gets sent to the office doesn’t mean we’re getting ready to expel him.”

The 9,200-student Vicksburg Warren School District has a comprehensive discipline plan and students receive written copies. Classes start Aug. 13 this year.

According to the School Safety Act, serious offenses include “foul, profane, obscene, threatening, defiant or abusive language or action toward teachers or other school employees; defiance, ridicule or verbal attack of a teacher; and willful, deliberate and overt acts of disobedience of the directions of a teacher.”

The category does not include acts such as taking guns or other weapons to school already illegal.

Under the act, a student can be removed from class for a serious offense upon the agreement of the principal and teacher.

After a second offense, children older than 13 are to be given a “behavior modification plan” by the school district. Subsequent violations could result in expulsion after a school board hearing. Students younger than 13 get a psychological profile and a plan after a second offense.

“We think this act can improve the learning environment in classrooms,” Oakes said. “We just want to make sure that we know exactly what it says before school starts.”

When passed, sponsors said the purpose of the act was to head off situations in which small problems become big ones. Cited specifically were school shootings in Pearl and elsewhere in which failure to address “minor” infractions was said to have led to bullying or other conduct that resulted in violence.

Oakes, however, said the act’s language has caused confusion in education circles statewide.

“People have been wondering, What is a habitual offender?'” he said.

An opinion submitted to state Superintendent Richard Thompson by the Attorney General’s Office reinforces Oakes’ contention that not all trips to the principal’s office are the same.

“While a student may be removed (from class) for disrupting the learning environment, … that does not necessarily mean the student’s conduct was an act of disruptive behavior’ as defined by (the bill),” wrote Assistant Attorney General Heather P. Wagner.

The attorney general’s opinion also says the act is a supplement to, and not a complete revision of, district disciplinary plans.

“In light of the opinion, I don’t see us having to change our plan much at all,” Oakes said.