Indiana, PA - Indiana County

INDIANA: Public debates school discipline policy matters

by CHAUNCEY ROSS on March 26, 2013 11:00 AM

District residents offered mixed opinions about how students are disciplined in Indiana Area schools at the school board’s meeting Monday evening.

Under strict direction from board President Thomas Harley, those offering public comment were confined to talk about the merits of policy and barred from referring to specific students, incidents or disciplinary hearings “past, present or future.”

The discipline issue and concerns with the school budget drew an overflow of more than 50 guests, prompting officials to hold the meeting in the East Pike Elementary School cafeteria/auditorium rather than the board conference room.

Although the same blanket of confidentiality governing the board and administration was imposed on the speakers, it was evident that the turnout was in response to the involvement of seven Indiana Area Senior High School students in an underage drinking incident earlier this month during a field trip to Hershey.

The students were issued summary citations by police in Derry Township, Dauphin County, and are subject to discipline under the school district’s policy. The policy subjects them to a broad range of sanctions from suspension to expulsion, or “other board or administrative action.”

The incident gave rise to two online petitions, one seeking lenience for the students and the other calling for adherence to existing district policy. Both petitions assumed expulsion is the only punishment being imposed.

In his opening comments, Harley commended those who “use(d) social media to create those petitions and to become so passionately engaged in your local government.”

Some of those speaking at the meeting were admonished, however, when they referred to underage drinking in their remarks.

Student Sam Cope was given latitude when he told the board that the district shouldn’t have a “zero-tolerance” policy, and said incidents such as underage drinking, bomb threats and bringing weapons to school, classified as Level IV offenses, the most serious infractions, were not alike and not deserving of the same punishment.

“The law recognizes that punishment should be based on the severity of actions,” Cope said. “Students caught in such an act (as underage drinking) should receive 10 days of suspension and community service which would teach them a lesson, rather than expel them.”

Cope presented the board a petition asking for a review of the policy.

Laura Thomas, the parent of three district students, said directors should consider more than the immediate effect of levying punishment.

“Our town is small enough that we often refer to the school community as a family,” Thomas said. “The district already asserts rights in loco parentis over our children on half days and claims jurisdiction over their actions en route home from school on normal days.

“In healthy, normally functioning families, when a member transgresses, however gravely, we work to discipline according to the severity of the offense, but we do not excommunicate. We consider the longer trajectory of our relationships and the longer-term need for family cohesion and strength.

“The responsible thing for our community’s long-term fiscal and social health is to rehabilitate these young citizens through discipline that does not separate them from our educational system.”

Cookie Moretti, a district parent, said she was confident of acting District Superintendent Dale Kirsch and senior high school Principal Wade McElheny making thoughtful decisions in the best interests of students, the schools and the community, and urged the board to abide by policy.

“Since 1993, I have signed the district’s Attendance, Behavioral Guidelines and Discipline Policy … 18 times,” Moretti said. “It clearly states the district’s rules and policies and the disciplinary options/responses. This, I feel, is how a community teaches its children how to become responsible citizens. There are rules or laws and there are consequences.”

Moretti also took issue with publication of the students’ names and circumstances in the community, and said that their situations should be dealt with privately only by those who have the facts.

Laura Vosson told the board that in her job as a human resources manager, she is bound to follow the rules in place and that the district should do the same.

“No matter what fervor we have right now regarding incidents that happened now or in the future … until a rule or law is changed, the consequences have to be applied consistently and equitably to all, without regard to people’s socio-economic status in the community,” Vosson said. “In an employment situation, it’s sad for me as an HR director to meet with an employee who violates a rule and we have a zero-tolerance policy and I have to terminate them. I’m required to. There is no wiggle room. If I do not, I am culpable as well.

“I’m always amazed when the employee says, ‘I only did it one time’ or ‘Can’t you give me a second chance.’ The answer is no, I can’t. It’s a zero-tolerance policy. That’s what it means.”

District resident Joseph Schwartz said discipline shapes future behavior and punishment addresses current behavior, and that there’s a gray area between them. He urged the board to use discretion in sanctioning students.

“There are options … for creative, constructive response to this incident,” Schwartz said. “This is a teachable moment, to enhance rather than suppress the future of these potential leaders.”

District solicitor Patricia Andrews cautioned him to avoid reference to specific students.

Bernie Parker told the board about the alcohol-related deaths of two close friends in 1982 — they were fatally injured when they stepped from a curb into the path of a car while they were intoxicated, he said — and asked those present to be thankful the situation was not more serious.

“Be thankful none of us are at a funeral home tonight, or with someone on life support,” he said. “Our priority as parents is to be thankful this is not a bigger problem.”

Board members offered no response to the comments offered.

In related business, the school officials followed confidentiality guidelines in voting to accept a disciplinary agreement for a student identified only as No. 1213-04. No details of the student’s offense or the nature of the sanction were discussed.

The board also authorized the employment of legal counsel to represent the administration in expulsion hearings, while solicitor Andrews emphasized that the move did not imply that any expulsion hearings are scheduled or expected to be conducted.

In comparing a disciplinary hearing to a court trial, the school board is the equivalent of a judge and jury, while the student is the defendant and the school administrator is the charging officer.

Because school directors are not legal professionals, the district solicitor usually assists them in conducting the hearing. Students are represented by attorneys “about half the time,” according to Andrews, but the administrator, either a principal or the superintendent, until now has never had a lawyer to assist in expulsion hearings.

This story edited at 2:30 p.m. Tuesday to correct a typographical error in the second paragraph.

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