Kennewick School Board alters student discipline policies

Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldApril 5, 2014 

Fighting at school will get you sent home in Kennewick, but recent changes to discipline policies will allow school administrators to do more to punish students who instigate problems and to be more lenient to those defending themselves.

The Kennewick School Board recently altered its suspension, expulsion and student misconduct policies as part of an effort to get away from a "zero tolerance" approach to discipline.

Intended as a means to discourage bad behavior, zero tolerance policies have received increasing criticism from educators and parents for unfairly punishing students who were not responsible for starting a fight.

The policies became prevalent in schools in the mid-1990s and have been applied to fighting and bullying, as well as possession of drugs and weapons on school grounds.

The new changes won't require school principals to dole out differing punishments, only that they'll have the option to do so. But the changes also could be a challenge for principals to accurately determine who shoulders the blame in an altercation, board members said.

However, board members said they're glad students who don't instigate conflicts won't be overly penalized for another student's poor decisions.

"If it's obvious that it's one-sided, the principal should have discretion to take appropriate action," said board member Ron Mabry during a recent board meeting.

Fights and violence are the top reasons students are suspended or expelled in most Mid-Columbia schools.

There were eight expulsions and nearly 300 suspensions in Kennewick schools for fights and similar altercations in the 2012-13 school year, more than double the number of suspensions and expulsions for bullying and tobacco, alcohol and drug use combined, according to the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.Education officials have become concerned about how the policies affect education. A federal study found that some students are more likely to be punished based on their economic and social status or ethnicity. The Washington State Board of Education recently pledged to work with school districts to make sure student punishments are equitable.

"We know that discipline practices affect students' access to education and, ultimately, their success," said state board Chairwoman Kristina Mayer in a news release.

Suspensions and expulsions can make a student fall behind in classes but also disrupt other activities that may keep a student engaged in school, from athletics to the performing arts, Kennewick board members said. That makes it important students aren't kept out of school longer than their actions require.

A short-term suspension can last anywhere from one to 10 school days, with a long-term suspension keeping students out of class for more than 10 school days. An expulsion generally means a student has been removed for an indefinite period of time.

The board agreed to add language to its policies indicating principals "shall evaluate and consider the circumstances of the situation and any other relevant information, and shall exercise discretion in determining the appropriate outcome" into the policies.

The change won't necessarily prevent students involved in an incident from being removed from school for a short time as administrators investigate, district officials said.

But final punishments would be more flexible, and district officials are looking at ways to ensure students found innocent of wrongdoing won't have those incidents on their permanent record.

The board is aware of potential pitfalls and made sure the changes wouldn't prevent the district from addressing some incidents that happen off school grounds, such as cyberbullying or altercations between teachers and students in public.

At the same time, student discipline shouldn't be punitive nor become overly procedural.

"We need to avoid becoming a criminal court," board member Heather Kintzley said during a recent meeting.

Superintendent Dave Bond told the Herald that many principals would welcome the policy changes.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402;; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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