OCR resolution leads to new behavioral matrix

Administration given more leeway in suspending students for defiance-related offenses

Claire Gilliland, Editor-in-Chief

When the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) returns to Lodi Unified School District in October, it expects to find a district utilizing its new Student Discipline and Intervention Matrix effectively to eliminate disciplinary discrimination.

Last year, the OCR told Lodi Unified that its disciplinary policy was discriminatory against its African American students.

“In [the OCR’s] resolution against Lodi Unified they found that different students at different schools were experiencing different levels of discipline,” Principal Hillary Harrell said. “They thought if we had something unifying that kept us all together on the same kind of path in terms of discipline that that would make things more equitable for students.”

The new matrix is based on a model the OCR provided, which was developed with Oakland Unified School District to solve a similar problem. With this new disciplinary matrix, the district’s policies have become more lenient and focused on consultation and intervention rather than more harsh discipline.

“We’re trying to develop other [intervention programs] to support students who are struggling,” Harrell said. “Once a student has gotten into a fight or has come to school high, it’s almost like we should have tried to do something to prevent that.”

This change means that students will receive lesser punishments for indiscretions and violations of the education code, such as fighting. With the new matrix, suspension (both in- and out-of-school) is a less common consequence, and instead punishments focus on remediation with things such as mentoring or conflict mediation.

“It allows us to be a little more flexible and look at the specific situation,” Harrell said.

A large part of this new matrix are the tiers of intervention, which are new developments for LUSD. They are included in behavior punishments and consist of interventions such as student/teacher conferences and a focus on “restorative” measures aimed at preventing any future behavioral problems.

“[With the intervention tiers] you don’t just punish a kid,” Harrell said. “You give him or her support that they need to be able to correct their behavior…, right their wrong, and then move forward and hopefully not repeat it.”

An example of the school’s major changes in terms of discipline is the punishment for fighting, which has been lowered. Fighting (level 1) used to be punishable by a mandatory five-day suspension, but now the disciplinary consequence is parent consultation, Tier II or Tier III interventions, and optional one to three days suspension.

“We’re moving toward a system that will help students deal with the consequences of having a fight better [and] be able to get back on track educationally,” Harrell said.

This new discipline track is a significant change from Bear Creek’s old zero tolerance policy on fighting.

“Regardless of the situation, regardless of the reasons why, [if you were in] two fights in a year and three fights in your high school career you were expelled,” Harrell said. “There was no wiggle room. That was unfair in some situations and not equitable in some situations.”

“I’ve always believed that suspending both students [for a fight] no matter how it started was always kind of stupid,” senior Caitlynn Doucette said. “I think that [the new system] is better than just suspending two people without gaining full knowledge of the situation and how it happened. I personally don’t think students should be punished because of speculation.”

Bear Creek is particularly focused on Conflict Mediation; the administration only used it a few times last year as an intervention tactic, but with the new behavioral matrix focusing so much on intervention, it is now more prominent and commonly utilized.
There still are some misbehaviors, such as inflicting bodily harm upon another student, that warrant more serious consequences, including suspension; these consequences are typically coupled with additional intervention- and restoration-based ones.

“The matrix does indicate that a student should receive interventions in addition to home suspension or on-campus suspension,” Harrell said.

Though this new matrix was drafted to help eliminate LUSD’s racial bias, it still maintains some room for subjectivity. For many offenses, certain punishments are optional, which leave room for administrative discretion.

For example, the punishment for pulling the fire alarm when there’s no fire (a level four offense) is optional three- to five-day suspension, along with a parent conference and at least one Tier III intervention. This punishment, like most in the discipline and intervention matrix, allows administrators to decide the severity of a certain behavior on a case-by-case basis.

“This matrix allows us to look at you more specifically as an individual instead of just giving everyone the same punishment,” Harrell said.

Some believe that the lesser punishment is long overdue, as suspension takes students away from school rather than helps prevent fights.

Others are worried that this more lenient policy towards fighting will not discourage students enough and will lead to more misbehavior. Harrell anticipates these complaints.

“While I’m nervous because I don’t want this to send the wrong message, I do think that it’s important that we remember that students and teachers cannot do the best work that they need to do if they don’t feel safe, and that’s really important,” Harrell said. “We will have opportunities for students and parents and teachers to participate in committee meetings about our new discipline procedures”

The OCR will return to check on Lodi Unified’s progress in terms of correcting their racial bias and disciplinary problem in October of this year; Harrell believes this will be an opportunity for Bear Creek — and Lodi Unified as a whole — to demonstrate the efficacy of the new matrix.