School discipline policies questioned

Grant County School District No. 3 Superintendent Curt Shelley has been directed by the school board to review the district's disciplinary policies and present a report at the next school board meeting April 18.

Questions about suspension and expulsion policies were raised at the March 21 meeting of the Grant School District 3 Board of Directors, with claims that extreme disciplinary measures negatively impacted Grant Union High School students.

Baker City attorney Kyra Rohner-Ingram told the board she was hired to represent a student who was suspended from Grant Union High School following an Oct. 4 incident involving marijuana use and possession.

Rohner-Ingram said the student ended up being suspended for 70 days before being allowed to return to the high school campus. Citing language in a 2014 House bill that says a student cannot be suspended for more than 10 days, Rohner-Ingram said the school district’s action constituted expulsion, which triggers rights of students to additional review.

She noted that the law, which is mandatory for schools in Oregon, states that school boards must ensure that disciplinary policies “provide opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes.”

The revised law was enacted with the goal of keeping students in school and out of a “pipeline to prison,” she said, where students who are removed from school end up heading in the wrong direction, with worse outcomes.

Grant Union High School Principal Ryan Gerry responded to Rohner-Ingram in a Jan. 9 letter. The student was only suspended for 10 days, he said. At the end of the 10-day suspension, it was determined that instead of being expelled, the student would be educated in an “alternative setting” for the rest of the semester.

Rohner-Ingram told the Eagle that she believes the current issue is that school policy is not being followed correctly.

“I expect the practices within the district to follow the policy, and most importantly the law,” she told the Eagle. “I believe the board should diligently review whether this is happening within each school in their district. It is my opinion that on at least one occasion, if not more, Grant Union High School is not following the law regarding student discipline.”

Offering the student online courses and a few hours of tutoring per week was not a satisfactory solution for Tracey Blood and Lisa Weigum, who also addressed the school board.

Blood, a 1999 Grant Union graduate, is the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Oregon, a nonprofit organization. Weigum, a 2003 Grant Union graduate, is a substance abuse prevention coordinator with Community Counseling Solutions. They spoke to the board as concerned citizens.

“There is a need for intervention, not discipline,” Weigum told the Eagle.

In a three-page letter to the school board, Blood said Grant Union’s practice of disciplinary response not only fails to comply with state law, it “has been proven to be detrimental to the development of children.”

Over five months of working with school administrators and staff to implement a “trauma-informed” approach, Blood said she saw an “inability or unwillingness” by Grant Union administrators to “ensure the needs of each student is met.” As a result, at least 12 students have left and enrolled in online programs or at Prairie City High School, she said.

“At least seven of those have withdrawn in the last two months alone,” she said. “Numerous others have voiced their desire to withdraw from this school or intend to move to another school at the beginning of the next school year, citing lack of academic and social supports and services as their reason for changing schools.”

Blood said that instead of helping children learn from their mistakes and striving to provide students with protective factors that would help them develop healthy habits, Grant Union’s exclusionary approach to discipline “deprives students of the essential support services they need.”

Instead of providing guidance or instruction, the school’s punitive reaction breeds distrust toward adults and nurtures an adversarial, confrontational attitude, she said.

“It’s been proven that when students miss school because of suspension and expulsion, they are not only missing those class days, but are more at risk of being suspended again, falling behind in school, dropping out and being drawn into the juvenile justice system,” Blood said. To improve outcomes for children in Grant County, “Grant Union administrators and staff will need to abandon the draconian measures taken against students for typical adolescent behavior,” she said.

Numerous parents and students spoke of similar experiences and frustrations, Blood said, and some said they were unwilling to confront school administrators “out of fear of retaliation by the school.” Both Blood and Weigum described to the Eagle instances of personal retaliation they claim resulted from their efforts to address this issue.

Weigum provided the board with a litany of statistics to back up Blood. According to a 2016 student wellness survey, 46 percent of 11th graders at Grant Union reported they could talk openly to teachers, compared to 61 percent statewide, and 64 percent of the students reported feeling like teachers treated them with respect, compared to 76 percent statewide.

About 78 percent of the students reported hearing other students being bullied, compared to 66 percent statewide, and 85 percent reported hearing another student spread mean rumors or leave other students out of activities, compared to 64 percent statewide. About 21 percent reported bullying another student physically or verbally, compared to 12 percent statewide.

About 21 percent of the students were found to be in psychological distress, compared to 14 percent statewide, and 28 percent reported seriously considering attempting suicide, compared to 18 percent statewide.

In his response to the presentation, School Board Vice Chairman Zach Williams noted that the numbers were “very troubling” and he didn’t want to see students leaving school.

Williams said he grew up in Grant County and attended Grant Union High School. The culture in area schools has changed, he said, and demographic changes, with families moving in and out of the county, might explain why.

Williams also noted that the school board acts in a judicial role when it reviews suspension and expulsion cases, and with the strict rules that the board operates under, the board cannot look at the details of a case until it comes before them. On the other hand, Williams noted that the district could review suspension and expulsion policies.

The board reached consensus to direct Superintendent Curt Shelley to review the district’s policies and present a report on recent disciplinary actions at their next meeting. The board will meet next in Seneca on April 18.

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