This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. on Aug. 19, 2014.
Montgomery County Public Schools will start using a new code of conduct beginning this month to guide administrators on how to discipline students.
The code, posted Thursday to the county school system’s website, was spurred by new regulations the state school board adopted in January. The regulations are aimed in part at reducing suspensions and expulsions and increasing administrators’ ability to use their discretion when determining disciplinary action.
The new school system guide outlines levels of discipline that increase in severity from one to five. Each level includes possible actions principals and school staff can take to address student behavior.
The code also includes a “matrix” that lists a series of behaviors and a corresponding range of disciplinary levels for administrators and staff to consider.
For example, if a student uses or has a tobacco or electronic cigarette at school, the matrix suggests a level one or level two response.
In those two levels, suggested responses include verbal correction, detention, community service and developing a plan to address the student’s behavior.
In another example, a student found distributing or selling drugs might face a level three, four or five response based on the matrix suggestions. In that range, a student might face disciplinary action such as in-school suspension, referral to counseling or health services, participation in a mentoring program or, in the most extreme cases, a referral to alternative education or expulsion.
The first three levels especially share multiple possible responses.
Other behaviors addressed in the matrix include truancy, insubordination, fighting, destruction of property, sexual harassment and making a bomb threat.
Christopher Garran, associate superintendent for high schools, said administrators will consider the appropriate level of response and what specific action within that level to take.
The system is emphasizing a goal to discipline students in stages, he said.
“You at least consider a lower-level response first and then if the behavior repeats itself, then you start looking at the higher-level responses,” he said.
If a principal wants to choose a response outside the range of levels in the matrix, Garran said, he must contact the system’s Office of School Support and Improvement.
“I think we’re positioned really well for this code because we’ve already been doing a lot of this work,” he said.
Garran said students will be informed about the new code and receive hard copies of the guide.
In the past, the school system divided discipline action into two categories: discretionary and nondiscretionary.
The school system’s Student Rights and Responsibilities policy previously included several student actions that call for a mandatory recommendation of expulsion and mandatory referral to police.
Those actions included, among others, making a bomb threat, a violent physical attack, and distribution of controlled dangerous substances.
Joe Rubens, principal at John F. Kennedy High School in Silver Spring, said the new code is “really not a huge shift” from the practices already used in his school.
He said Kennedy’s administrators have used a process that involves taking time, discussing the situation and incorporating different perspectives before making a decision about disciplining a student.
Rubens said he appreciates that the code provides transparency about the process.
“It’s very straightforward and gives it right to all of our stakeholders: Here’s what’s expected and here’s what the responses are,” he said.
Principal Scott Murphy said he thinks the code “formalizes” efforts that Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg has already taken on. The school has been working on developing alternatives to suspension, such as structured community service, as part of a larger mission to engage students and create a positive school environment, Murphy said.
He said the range of levels the code suggests for each behavior offers “a lot of discretion” for principals.
“Suspension will still be on the table, but creating that mindset that there’s a continuum and suspension is the last resort is important,” he said.