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New student code of conduct vetoed as too complex


The School Board has bowed to pressure from a Gifford community group and rejected the latest version of the student code of conduct penned by school district staff as too long and complex.

Parents and others in the district have long complained that the code is a booby trap of sorts. According to critics, even though the 78-page code is too complicated and unclear for students to understand, it is used to justify punishing them for infractions they may not have been aware of.

LaDonna Williams, a lawyer with five children in local schools, said, “It took me four hours to get to page 31 and I’m in a Ph.D. program.”

What punishments can be meted out for what offenses is equally unclear, according to board member Laura Zorc. She said she pored over the code after a serious incident at a local school to make sure proper procedure was followed, but “could not understand what consequence the principal should impose.

“I want to see it simplified,” Zorc said.

Aretha Sanders, a member of Pioneering Change, the newly-formed Gifford community group that persuaded the board to reject the code, said its “unreadability” made it impossible for a parent to sit down with their child and make sure they understood it.

“They can’t be governed by something they don’t understand,” Sanders told the board.

Merchon Green, a leader of the community group, said the lack of clarity cedes too much authority to school principals, making their disciplinary decisions absolute and perhaps arbitrary, not subject to due process. “If the principal has final authority on everything, does that leave parents and students with any means of appeal?” she asked the board.

Adding insult to injury, parents must sign a document indicating they understand school rules and consequences of breaking them – even though the code is virtually incomprehensible.

Critics say the murkiness of the code contributes to the criminalization of school behavior, with kids ending up in juvenile court without clear cause. Some students who are on probation can be locked up for breaking poorly defined school rules, accelerating a downward spiral that damages their prospects in life.

Tony Brown, president of the Indian River County NAACP, says the code defines gang activity so loosely that kids can be suspended without any evidence of criminal behavior.  And if they have previously been in trouble, suspension can trigger incarceration.

“There was a kid in court for his hair and eyebrows, “ Brown told the board.  “Give our kids a chance in this school district.” He asked that proof of criminal activity be added to the definition of gang activity.

Dr. Jacqueline Warrior, head of the NAACP education committee, said campus arrests have increased 85 percent since 2015, partly because of the code, and that black students are arrested at a disproportionate rate.

Although black students make up just 17 percent of the student population, 65 percent of those arrested at school are black.

Members of Pioneering Change and others who spoke at the meeting where the code was discussed managed to persuade the board to reject the flawed code, getting several members to reverse their positions and join in a unanimous vote, but the victory turned out to be hollow.

During discussion on redrafting the document, School Board Administrative Assistant Judy Stang said the code must be rewritten and available to the public for a month before it can come up again for approval. After that, the approved code would have to go to the printer in time for school opening in mid-August.

So, although the board rejected this year’s revised code, there is no time to craft, present and distribute the kind of short, simple, straightforward code the public desires. Instead, last year’s jargon-filled code, which is very similar in length and complexity to the code that was rejected, will be printed again and continue in effect.

The board did direct staff to meet with Pioneering Change and other community members in redrafting the code, and said it will consider putting an improved student code of conduct into effect in the middle of the school year.