School discipline policy divides students and administrators
By Mari Kanagy, Publishing Editor & Halle Wyatt, Co-Content Editor
The school’s disciplinary policy has been questioned by students since before this past October, but the incident with the sophomore’s Homecoming royalty voting brought to light the lack of trust between students and staff.
Some of this distrust originates with poor communication around what the school’s discipline policy entails. Although students generally know their options when reporting incidents to the administration, there is still significant confusion surrounding these reporting methods.
There are three standard methods of reporting bullying incidents to school administration. These methods include filing an Anonymous Alert report that can be found on the school’s website, taking your concerns to a staff member, or the lesser known Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB) report.
“They’re all effective,” principal Danny Rock said. “The focus is on quick, rapid resolution.”
Student distrust of staff
One common criticism among the student body is that students are not always aware of when and how administrators have taken action in an attempt to solve their reported issue.
“I reported something I would consider pretty serious — I think a lot of other people would, too — and I don’t feel like [the administration] did anything,” junior Elliott James said. “I didn’t see any sort of impact on the person or people involved, and I didn’t receive any sort of follow up or questions after I reported the incident.”
James described that he reported the situation to a substitute, who was filling in for an administrator that day.
“I would’ve wanted a follow-up, and probably for them to ask me a couple questions about who was involved, and ask for more details, because I didn’t give them a lot of information because I didn’t know a lot of information at that point,” James said. “I feel like sometimes, at this school, I have to solve things for myself that I shouldn’t have to solve for myself.”
Administrators, meanwhile, are confident in the school’s bureaucracy.
“Every single time [a report] is filed, there is a follow through, no matter what,” assistant principal Andrew Guss said.
In addition to official reports, Guss described that he often has informal conversations with students, often as at lunch or in the hallway, in which they will report to him an issue they’ve been having at school.
“[Students] will say, ‘Hey, this happened in gym the other day,’ and they haven’t filed a report, but it’s just a passing conversation,” Guss said. “I’ll spend the time, and I’ll follow up with a student informally.”
Student protections and the HIB report
Students who report an incident to the administration, or are involved in an incident requiring discipline, are not legally allowed to be informed of the consequences to other students. The Family Educational Rights and Protection Act, a federal law signed into effect in 1974, protects outside sources from accessing information about students. This restricts what students can know about the disciplinary actions enforced against peers, even if the student themself is involved in the incident.
Because of this law, students are sometimes left with complaints.
“They shouldn’t tell us the details of something that’s happening with discipline of a student, but I feel like if there’s no noticeable change that’s going on, then… what’s happening here?” sophomore Stellar Bigatel said. “If you are disciplining a student but they are still continuing their behavior that they’re supposed to be disciplined for, that’s… a sure sign nothing’s really happening.”
Whether or not the student reporting the incident classifies it as harassment, intimidation, or bullying, administration will almost always file a HIB report, though students themselves can file an HIB report as well.
“If a student fills out a HIB form, there are certain things that we make sure that we do, like creating a safety plan if it’s appropriate for the student,” Rock said. “The HIB form itself will have certain features to it to ensure the victim gets communicated with about the resolution, [and] that there’s safety planning involved.”
Although administrators do encounter some reports of bullying through Anonymous Alert, students mostly use the system to report peers and friends at risk of suicide and self-harm, along with at-home neglect and drug abuse.
“I do think it’s a great resource because it creates a safe space for students to process what’s happening [and] to show their care,” Guss said.
Rock finds Anonymous Alert to be the least effective when reporting incidents of bullying because students exclude critical information about the situation.
“If we don’t have a victim or a target for the bullying or harassment, it’s pretty hard to make it stop,” he said. “People … tend to [only] report the offender, … and their thinking is, ‘Well, if you just told the person to stop being mean or to stop sending inappropriate text messages or whatever, then they would just stop doing it to everyone.’”
According to Rock, the district tends to have a high success rate in cases of bullying.
“I’ve had some situations where the student behavior changes pretty quickly as soon as any kind of light is shed on the behavior, [and] the student stops,” Rock said. “Because in this process, parents are informed and between parent and school attention on this, … it’s often enough to make it stop right away.”
Despite his confidence in the school’s disciplinary system, Rock does understand some student doubts.
“Our students are smart and can be sneaky when they want to be, so if students want to be unkind to each other in this environment, they often know how to do that without other people seeing it,” he said.
The high school follows a restorative justice disciplinary system, which emphasizes student growth over punishment, and seeks to reduce student suspension rates. The policy has been required in all public schools by the state since the 2016-2017 school year, although VHS implemented this system the previous year. The restorative justice system is believed to be more effective, as it attempts to improve the student’s behavior rather than punish bad behavior.
“Punishment is more connected to justice than it is to changed behavior,” Rock said. “If people are wanting for there to be clear … accountability for behavior, then punishment is satisfying.”
The state has revised the restorative justice policy several times since its implementation to further reduce suspension. Revisions from the past two years have notably included a change in punishment for first time offenses, in particular those of drug use. Previously, the punishment was an automatic two week suspension, but that sentence has since been shortened.
“It’s harder and harder and harder to suspend students,” Rock said. “An expectation is that schools are going to try and find out what’s actually causing this problem, and how … bringing students together to discuss this problem [can] help resolve it instead of simply removing them from school.”
In instances of harassment, intimidation, and bullying, intervention is a common disciplinary method with a goal of decreasing the tension between two individuals. This can include bringing the students together for a discussion, a change in class schedules, involving outside resources such as therapy, or regular meetings with staff.
Rock believes that traditional punishment such as suspension and lunch detention only communicates to students that they need to stop their current behavior, while restorative justice allows for students to adopt new and positive habits..
“If what they want is changed behavior, then punishment might be part of that solution but restorative acts — understanding, compassion, and a focus on relationships — are much more likely to actually produce changed behavior,” he said.