By Patrick Fancher
Names have been changed to address concerns for privacy of individuals in sensitive circumstances.
Alex couldn’t contain his excitement. The high school junior was ready for a weekend to hang out with friends at choir camp. Unfortunately, earlier in the day he had been caught at school high on marijuana, his second time during the academic year. Would he receive a 10-day suspension from school again? Not exactly.
“I was expelled for a year,” Alex said. His honors classes were replaced with online credit courses. Social activities like choir and playing sports gave way to meeting a district-appointed tutor for his homework. Many high school experiences were off the table. But did the punishment fit the crime?
In January the Obama administration urged educators across the nation to avoid harsh punishment of students. All school levels in Corvallis seem ahead of the curve, with decreasing student expulsions. This could be because the Corvallis 509J school district has taken steps to prevent student misconduct issues before they escalate. In other words, there are not many instances like Alex’s.
509J District K-12
The Corvallis 509J School District includes children in kindergarten up to young men and women who are just about to experience life after high school.
Of the 6,352 students in the district, only about 11 were expelled in 2013, according to Kerry Richey of Student Services Support. So far in 2014, there have been five students expelled from district schools. She says an average of 9 to 11 students face expulsion each year.
Male high school students are involved in most incidents that lead to expulsion. However, four of the 11 expulsions in 2013 were middle school students. The offenses ranged from bringing weapons and drugs or alcohol to school, hazing, and a couple of instances of breaking and entering.
Melissa Harder, who is in her first year serving as principal of Jefferson Elementary School, as well as the district’s expulsions officer, explains the expulsion process.
“It is important to draw a distinction between being taken to an expulsion hearing and actually being expelled,” Harder said. “The district has created a Serious Offense Matrix (aligned with board policy) that details what actions can lead to an expulsion hearing. Bringing a weapon to school, for example, is an automatic expulsion hearing as is distributing illegal drugs on school grounds. Fighting is not an automatic expulsion hearing.”
There are many offenses covered in the Matrix that can lead to a hearing, which are dependent upon the incident circumstances. An on-location administrator decides if a hearing is necessary.
“On day of hearing, the administrator comes with an Expulsion Packet—essentially the evidence they will present to me to make their case for expulsion. Parents and student also attend the hearing along with any other people they choose—sometimes a juvenile department counselor, a family friend, a lawyer,” Harder said.
The district is also responsible for providing the expelled student with an education post-expulsion.
“Typically this is accomplished by providing students with packet work to earn credits and a tutor for five hours per week,” Harder said. The expulsion officer decides the amount of time an expulsion should last, and it’s possible for an expelled student to return to school earlier than one calendar year.
Harder says the majority of expelled students return to school in some format, instead of dropping out or finishing school through independent study.
“Parents have all been very supportive of the final decisions,” Richey said.
Future Changes to Student Behavior Discipline Policy?
Assistant Superintendent Kevin Bogatin says the district along with part of the Oregon leadership network out of Northwest Regional Labs have worked over the last year on examining policy, especially regarding exclusionary practices and disproportionate discipline.
“Basically the idea of our goal in school is to keep kids in classrooms as much as possible,” Bogatin said. “So we’re really examining: Do we have our policies and procedures in place? Are they fair and applicable in terms of our long-term goal of kids behavior and keeping kids in class?”
He said there may be eventual changes to the Serious Offense Matrix Guidelines on how to treat less serious offenses, though violence and drug offenses would likely have the same result: suspension expulsion.
This Family’s High School Expulsion Experience
Alex’s dad, Mark, seems at peace with his son’s expulsion. “Essentially, I think the school district was fair with Alex,” he said. “He had already been suspended for the same thing, so he did know what the rules were.”
Alex felt the one-year expulsion was too long. He realizes the school was trying to teach him that he couldn’t get away with being high in a school environment; for instance, future employers would not tolerate this sort of behavior, either.
Mark believes that had his son’s suspension for the first offense been more severe than 10 days, he possibly wouldn’t have violated the rules again. There’s a sizable distance between 10 days away from your routine and familiar surroundings, as opposed to one full year. However, Mark only had one complaint about the way the school district handled the expulsion process.
“I don’t fault the district in any way, but I do think they could have been clearer about what would be available for Alex once he was expelled and the best way to access it all,” he said.
So, has Alex learned his lesson?
“I still don’t think you should use drugs or alcohol on school campus. You have stuff to deal with, and it could be dangerous for people to be around you,” Alex said.
After a year removed from high school, choir, and honors classes that challenged him, Alex was allowed to return to his school. He’s also taking courses at the community college and is on pace to graduate with the rest of his class.
For more information, including an updated Student-Parent handbook, visit the 509J District website at www.csd509j.net/en-us/home.aspx.