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Newark board considers changes to discipline, absence policies

High school students look at each other mid-conversation as they sit at a table that has papers scattered all over.

The Newark Board of Education is considering changes to several policies, including the addition of therapeutic interventions to its disciplinary guidelines.

Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages

The Newark Board of Education has been reviewing policy changes that could change the way administrators and teachers approach discipline, attendance, dress codes, and retention.

From removing an 18-day absence retention clause to including therapeutic interventions as part of disciplinary measures, policy amendments that could see a vote at a Tuesday board meeting would significantly affect students’ educational experiences.

Under current policies, Black students in the district are suspended at a far higher rate than students of any other race, according to federal data from 2017 that is limited by state reporting lapses. Students were penalized for absences — sometimes even held back a grade — in a district that had a 16% chronic absenteeism rate in 2020-21. 

Proposed changes to disciplinary measures, highlighted below, would add more restorative responses for students who might have previously faced disciplinary action, such as in- and out-of-school suspensions.

“Policies are not supposed to be designed to punish students,” Superintendent Roger León said. “We want to educate our students.”

Teams of administrators, teachers, parents, and students met multiple times over the last two years to review decade-old policies, León said during a board retreat meeting last month where he presented recommendations to amend certain policies and guidance.

Many of the revisions, León said, aim to keep students on track and in school.

The amended policies were introduced at a May school board meeting.

Board committees have been meeting throughout June to discuss and make adjustments to the policies that were recommended. According to León’s timeline at the meeting last month, the policies will likely be up for a vote at the June 21 meeting, before taking effect for next school year. The agenda for the Tuesday meeting was not yet available on the board website.

If approved at that meeting, the updated policies will be added to student and parent handbooks, and shared with families before the start of next school year, León said.

Here are some of the recommended policy changes the board is considering.

Discouraging retention

The board will consider removing a clause in the policy that penalizes students with 18 or more absences, or chronic absenteeism, with being held back a grade.

“It shouldn’t be a sole determining factor” for retention, León said at the May board meeting.

There would also be guidance added to indicate if an absence is due to trauma or crisis, bereavement, or a health condition or concern, or if a tardy is due to school bus or public transportation issues, he said.

On the district’s promotion and intervention policy, there would be guidance added to “focus on promotion with intervention for students who are not meeting benchmarks.” 

Therapeutic interventions

The amended discipline policy would include school-based and therapeutic interventions, as well as restorative circle time, for students who commit “level three” offenses. Level three offenses, the current policy stipulates, can include excessive tardiness and chronic absences.

Board member A’Dorian Murray-Thomas has advocated for a restorative justice program in the district and to formally include trauma-informed, restorative-based interventions in policies. 

Updated guidance would include sending students home with educational packets if they face suspension and to add a post-suspension conference meeting with students.

“This is not the criminal justice system, this is education,” León said. “Our job is to create pathways of success for students and these policy recommendations do that.”

Removing FAFSA deadline

The current graduation requirement policy, instituted last summer, requires seniors to either submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known by the acronym FAFSA, an alternate financial aid form, or a waiver by June 1.

The application for current and prospective college students helps them determine their eligibility for federal financial aid.

León shared that as of last month 75% of seniors have either submitted the FAFSA, or the New Jersey Alternate Financial Aid Application for undocumented students, or the required exemption form to their counselors. The remaining 25% of seniors may be at risk for not completing this graduation requirement.

“We’re at crunch time,” he said. León recommended eliminating the deadline.

There would also be guidance to add FAFSA workshops for parents and seniors throughout the school year and training for parents on how to use the federal financial aid website. 

Student life

The amended co-curricular activities policy would require all students participating in activities abide by a code of conduct to be developed with input from student leaders and presented for approval by the board.

Students would also have to sign a memorandum of understanding before being considered eligible to participate in activities. 

The board will also consider an amended dress and grooming policy that would add student input, remove hooded sweaters from the list of prohibited items, and align with the updated disciplinary policy to remove suspensions as a consequence.

Catherine Carrera is the bureau chief for Chalkbeat Newark, covering the city’s K-12 schools with a focus on English language learners. Contact Catherine at ccarrera@chalkbeat.org.

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