Maplewood Schools / Kids South Orange

After Delays, South Orange-Maplewood to Address Inequities in Discipline for Students of Color & With Disabilities

In its last meeting of 2018, South Orange-Maplewood School District administrators addressed long-awaited revisions to the district’s Code of Conduct policy that were initially proposed more than a year ago. The revisions, which aim to address the disparities in discipline and suspension policies that are widely seen as unfair to children of color and children with disabilities, have not yet been implemented, despite initial hopes to put it into action in the fall of 2018.

See the Code of Conduct presentation from the Spring of 2018 here:

Download (PDF, 442KB)

In his update, Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra said that he and the Board of Education have recently received several emails about the Code of Conduct. Interim Superintendent of Administration Dr. Gayle Carrick admitted that there has been a “circuitous” route to the completion of the Code of Conduct, and that a final meeting with the committee is scheduled for December 19. The project was initially being led by former Supt. of Administration Kevin Walston, who left the district last summer.

Dr. Carrick also explained that although the policy revisions mostly seek to address disciplining for middle- and high-school infractions, the updates will be implemented K-12 districtwide. She stated that she “looks forward” to presenting the final document soon.

Despite these updates, several community members still raised concerns about the policy during the Public Speaks segment of the meeting. Erin Siders of SEPAC (SOMA Special Education Parent Advisory Committee), identified that supporters of the new Code of Conduct take issue with how disciplinary action is applied under the current policy. She explained that the present Code allows for “disproportionate discipline and suspension rates for students of color and students with disabilities” and lacks clear guidelines. (See Siders full letter to the Board of Education below.)

The new policy would aim to call for documentation of in-class offenses, strategies used to discipline those offenses, and justification for escalating the discipline of those offenses to building administrators. Siders wanted to ensure that some specifics of the proposed policy make it into the final version of the document. She also requested that the school district keep the community informed, potentially providing updates on the new Code of Conduct at future BOE meetings.

“How can we talk about equity and integration,” she asked, “without talking about our unequal discipline policies?”

Board of Ed President Elizabeth Baker responded that in future meetings, there will be updates regarding the Code of Conduct policy from Dr. Carrick. Carrick stated that she wants to review on Wednesday “to make sure that everything mentioned today is in fact addressed in the document.”

During public comments, James Davis, who participated along with Siders in the Code of Conduct revision committee, expressed his dissatisfaction at the pace of revising the code and addressing the issues of disparity. “Time has not been of the essence with this particular issue of the Code of Conduct,” he told the Board. Davis said the South Orange-Maplewood School District has had suspension rates higher than the state averages since at least the 2011-2012 school year, when 13% of white children, 7% of Hispanic children and 21% of disabled children were suspended. Even after an ACLU lawsuit, “nothing was done between 2014 and October of 2017” to correct it.

Davis felt that even though the new policy was crafted throughout the 2017-18 school year, there had been virtual silence on the Code of Conduct since the community presentation of the revisions in April.

He reemphasized the importance of disciplinary actions being recorded, logged and communicated with disciplined students’ parents under a new Code of Conduct. “If that’s not part of your plan,” Davis asserted, “then your plan is insufficient.”

Letter to South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education from Erin Siders:

Board of Education and Dr. Ficarra,

In Fall 2017, the district contacted a group of stakeholders (parents, guardians and community members) for input on revising SOMSD’s Code of Conduct regulations.  This group convened over several months, reviewing the current district Code of Conduct policy, as well the policies of surrounding districts.  We identified gaps in our current regulations and sought to create a policy that was clear, concise, fair and empowering to all involved from students to teachers to administrators.  We worked with the goal of being able to present a revised regulation to the Board of Education by the end of 2017 and implementation of the regulations district wide by Spring 2018.

It is now a year later and we, the stakeholders, haven’t received a status on the implementation of revised Code of Conduct regulations.  Of the five district administrators who were guiding this work, only one remains employed by the district.  Who is now responsible for continuing this work?  We all know we have a discipline problem in our district.  We have been cited by the Office of Civil Rights, ACLU and the Least Restrictive Environment Settlement Agreement for disproportionate discipline and suspension rates for students of color and students with special needs.  In October 2018, I heard of a CHS teacher who ordered a student to leave a classroom that was in progress. The teacher didn’t tell the student to go to the office or call Security to have the student escorted from the room – the student was just told to get out. This teacher’s behavior is unacceptable and a violation of the CURRENT Code of Conduct!

The Code of Conduct is supposed to set the tone of behavior for ALL in our district buildings; it touches every aspect of learning in our district.  How can we talk about equity and integration and not talk about our unequal discipline policy?  A policy that is enforced via the discretion of teachers/administrators and without clear cut guidelines for what is an offense?  A policy that does not speak to documentation of in-class offenses, strategies used to address the offenses, and justification for escalating the offenses to a building administrator and possible suspension?  A policy that is used to justify and support suspension for kindergarten special needs students?

A complaint I hear often is that the district does not utilize the expertise of its community members.  This is OUR school district and we are dedicated to making it the best school district it can be.   So I am here to say – we are here and willing to continue this work.  What is the next step??

About the author: Reporter Colleen Falconer is a Maplewood native, graduate of Union Catholic High School and is currently attending Clark University in Worcester, MA where she is a freshman, concentrating in Law and Society.

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