By Sheryl Kaskowitz
For Beth Cruz, the problem came down to one category in the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) code of conduct: “Conduct prejudicial to good order.” In her work as a public defender for families of students with disabilities, she saw this phrase appear again and again, seeming to serve as a catch-all justification for student suspensions.
Eliminating categories like “conduct prejudicial to good order” was one of the priorities when the steering committee of PASSAGE (Positive and Safe Schools Advancing Greater Equity) took on the task of rewriting the district’s code of conduct, part of a larger effort to reduce discipline disparities and promote positive school discipline approaches. As Cruz said:
We tried to tighten up the definitions and to make them as clear as possible, so there wasn’t as much room for disparity to creep in. If offenses are plain and tightly written, disparity is much lower. For example, disparity tends to be much lower for drug offenses because you can’t make a judgment call about whether someone has broken that rule – a child either has drugs or they don’t.
PASSAGE’s district policy committee ultimately transformed the district code of conduct into a new student-parent handbook aligned with a progressive discipline model. Cruz explained, “The handbook is much more user-friendly and looks like something you might actually read. It’s meant to be more of a conversation between families and the school: ‘Here’s our responsibility, here’s yours, and here’s how you’ll be held accountable.’” The new handbook is an important step in changing the culture of discipline in Nashville schools, as Cruz described:
The old code of conduct just had a long list of offenses, in no logical order – it was hard for me, as an attorney, to find the code for the offense I was defending! And now it’s so simple: a table with five types of behavior (1 being the least serious, 5 being the most). As you move along the spectrum, the responses are more serious, but the system requires positive interventions at every level. For instance, the first time a kid comes to school and uses profane language, it’s not suspendable. Instead, a teacher is meant to talk to the student to address the root causes of a child’s behavior by involving other school supports, such as a social worker or counselor. So the model is: no punishment; get help.”
What allowed the handbook to move forward? According to Cruz:
The involvement of press, growing momentum, and inclusion of community members helped to make it happen. I have been thankful that the school system invited stakeholders to the table. I and another steering committee member, a court administrator in the juvenile court, were given the opportunity to say, “From our perspective, this is what we’re seeing. Can we talk about why these disparities happen?” That is probably unique among school districts, to leave that door open.
Video: The Handbook: Student & Parent Rights & Responsibilities, Metro Nashville Public Schools
Of course, Cruz understands the limitations of what a handbook can do. Without training and a school principal’s firm commitment to changing school culture, the new mode of discipline won’t really take hold. For example, even though the old catch-all category has been removed, Cruz has seen that these types of offensives have migrated to another vaguely worded category, “noncompliance with an administrative directive.” But Cruz remains hopeful:
We can’t understate that getting a new code was a big step forward – we have made so much progress with this document. I think it was a really critical step, and I think what we do with it is going to be really important. We need to keep tightening up the conduct codes and do what we can to improve school culture around discipline – to keep training staff, help people implement it better, and get more comfortable with using positive supports.
Beth Cruz is the team leader of the Education Rights Project at the Nashville Defenders, an MNPS parent, and a member of the PASSAGE steering committee. PASSAGE Nashville is a partnership between AISR, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and the Oasis Center.
Sheryl Kaskowitz is the staff editor at AISR.