This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. on Feb. 4, 2014.
Montgomery County school administrators can use discretion for disciplinary action against students involved in major offenses, after the state school board adopted new regulations on Jan. 28.
In addition, the regulations call long-term suspensions and expulsions as “last resort options,” and outlines what schools must do to help suspended students receive certain services, according to the state board’s proposed regulations.
Montgomery County Public Schools and other Maryland school districts have until the beginning of next school year to update their policies.
Lori-Christina Webb — executive director to the county school system’s deputy superintendent of teaching, learning and programs — said school-level administrators now can use discretion to decide more serious disciplinary cases.
Such decisions were previously guided by minimum and maximum discipline outlined in the school system’s policy, she said.
Webb said school administrators previously could use discretion for the “vast majority of offenses,” but not the most serious offenses.
“This codifies the authority of the school-based administrator to use their judgment and discretion,” Webb said.
The school system’s current Student Rights and Responsibilities policy includes several student actions that call for a mandatory recommendation of expulsion and mandatory referral to police.
Those actions include possession of a bomb or a bomb threat, possession of firearms, a violent physical attack on a student or staff member, intent to distribute or distribution of controlled dangerous substances, and possession of weapons used to cause bodily harm or injury.
The same policy lists other student actions that require “discretionary school-based consequences” and mandatory police referral, which include setting a fire, gang-related incidents, possession or use of intoxicants, sexual offenses, hate violence, and theft over $500 for a single incident.
Webb said the new regulations mark a “positive change,” as administrators at a school who are close to the situation can understand the context of an offense better and “look at the totality of the circumstances.”
Another aim of the regulations: to end “disproportionate impact” on minority and special education students.
Webb said she hopes administrators already used discretion on student conduct in certain cases, such as bringing a butter knife to use on a lunch item or chewing a pastry into the shape of a weapon. The pastry incident led to the suspension of a second-grader in Anne Arundel County.
Chrisandra Richardson, associate superintendent for special education and student services, said the school system will continue to identify best practices for student discipline by looking at individual schools’ methods.
The new regulations triggered “a new sense of urgency” to existing work, which also includes efforts to improve school climates and build relationships between school staff and students, she said.
Richardson said the school system always provided work for suspended students, as required by the regulations. Now, the system will provide a required liaison between teachers and a suspended student or the student’s parents.
The school system already used school liaisons, Richardson said.
“This just formalizes that entire process,” she said.
She said a school system work group has worked for more than a year and a half in anticipation of the state’s regulation changes, which have been discussed for several years.
Technical changes to the policy will be easy, Richardson said, but the “deeper” underlying implications will be more challenging.
Both officials described the importance of offering support to help individual school needs.
“We feel like the work that we have to do is again not just informing people ... but really in supporting schools and all of our staff,” Richardson said.
Marc Cohen, principal at Seneca Valley High School in Germantown, said kids should be treated as individuals.
“We have a responsibility to be thorough in our investigations, to listen to everybody involved and make decisions that are in the best interests of the students involved in each of these different (cases),” he said.
Cohen said discretion in discipline is challenging — families want consistency.
The five major offenses “very rarely” come up at Seneca Valley, he said, but school staff discusses discipline.
“We talk about it all the time,” he said. “Not about a need for more discretion, but about matching the consequence to the behavior.”
Over the next few months, he said, school staff will talk with parents such as what triggers the behavior in more serious offenses. Another topic will be how to work with students who commit offenses and who do not have a support system at home to help them.
James Fernandez, principal at Albert Einstein High School in Kensington, said he doesn’t think the state regulations will change much for the school system because discretion already plays a role in “the big five.”
Fernandez said that if a student commits a seemingly serious offense, the school will recommend expulsion to the school system’s central office, but can evaluate whether that is the right call.
“It’s nice to have some solid ground rules and then have an influence on the outcome,” he said.
Fernandez said he wants to hear from the school system’s central office what it expects from individual schools on the new regulations.
The school also must consider the safety of others in the building, he said, something parents take for granted.
“We need to be consistent and we need to think of safety,” he said.