New school discipline law could prove costly for Island taxpayers

— File photo by Susan Safford

Island school administrators are grappling with the details and potential costs of Chapter 222, a new state law that mandates changes in school discipline, which takes effect July 1. Of most concern is the requirement that school districts and charter schools must provide alternative educational services for students who are suspended or expelled from school, and pay for the associated costs.

“Basically, it says that for short-term suspensions up to 10 days, we have to allow the student to make up the work and get the credit; that’s not a big deal,” superintendent of Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools James Weiss explained in a recent phone conversation with The Times.

“But for anything over 10 days we have to have an educational services plan in place as to how we’re going to deal with kids who get long-term suspensions, exclusions or expulsions, because they have to have an alternative program.”

He added, “And that program is going to have an impact financially.”

For example, Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) currently maintains a list of alternative educational services to recommend to parents of suspended or expelled students. But it is not required to provide them.

“That’s changed with this law,” Mr. Weiss said. “We now are responsible.”

Time out limits

The new law also establishes an additional section under Chapter 71 of the Massachusetts General Laws, which outlines a system of due process procedures that school administrators must follow when suspending or expelling a student for non-serious offenses that do not involve drugs, weapons, violence, or criminal activities.

Under current school rules, students may be suspended, excluded from school for a period of one to two semesters, or expelled, which means permanent removal from the school. The new law limits the length of suspensions or expulsions for non-serious offenses to a maximum of 90 days. Mr. Weiss said the change will require a policy revision for Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools.

“In either case, whether students commit serious or non-serious offenses, we are going to have to provide them with education,” Mr. Weiss said.

In order to do that, the law requires principals and headmasters to create a school-wide education service plan. Mr. Weiss said plans can vary from building to building, and may include, but are not limited to, tutoring, alternative placement, Saturday school, and online or distance learning.

“It probably won’t have an impact on the elementary schools, because they rarely suspend or exclude kids for more than a day,” Mr. Weiss said. “But at the high school, it could be an issue.”

Currently, there is nothing in place in the high school that would mesh with a new program, he added.

Asked about numbers, Mr. Weiss said, “I’m going to say it’s less than ten kids that we’re really talking about. But those ten kids could require us to hire a teacher.”

Work in progress

In preparation for implementing the changes, Mr. Weiss has formed a discipline committee made up of principals and assistant principals. The committee will meet this week to discuss what they’ve learned and to try to work out the details as soon as possible.

“We’re going to look primarily at the high school, but we’re going to have plans in place at the elementary schools in case we should need them,” Mr. Weiss said.

One question is how to provide an education for students who receive long-term suspensions or exclusions. “Whether it’s going to be a tutoring program, an evening program, a Saturday program, an online program, we haven’t decided that yet,” he said.

Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School director Bob Moore, in an email to The Times, said the average number of students suspended has been five per year over the last five years. He did not mention any expulsions.

Asked if he and the staff have developed a plan for providing educational services to suspended and expelled students, Mr. Moore said, “The Charter School has provided educational services to suspended students in the past and will do so in the future.”

The funding question

The new law includes requirements for the state to provide resources for school districts to serve suspended and expelled students. It provides for partial reimbursement for the instructional costs of providing their alternative educational services using circuit breaker funds from a state special education reimbursement program.

The state currently reimburses a portion of district special education costs above a certain threshold. However, the reimbursement formula is adjusted annually to reflect the total amount allocated in the state budget in a given fiscal year, and impacted by the amount of claims statewide.

“We don’t know how much we’ll get from year to year, so that’s a soft source of funds, if you will,” Mr. Weiss said.

Chapter 222 also required the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to issue a report by November 30, 2013 on what the new law would cost to implement.

The DESE commissioned the Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy to conduct the study, which looked only at the costs of serving suspended or expelled students who are not eligible for special education services. Federal law already requires that special education students receive educational services through age 21.

The Rennie Center’s study examined three qualifying program models, an online learning laboratory in North Adams, a tutoring program in Fall River, and an alternative education model in Springfield.

In a letter highlighting key findings to the state legislature, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Mitchell D. Chester said the study estimated the total annual cost of an instructional program meeting the law’s requirements ranged from $32,130 to $308,131. He attributed the cost variation to differences in program models, which ranged from a few hours a week to a full-day program, and served different numbers of students. Personnel was the primary cost driver in all cases.

The study estimated the per pupil cost of an instructional program at $1,890 to $8,559.

Mr. Chester cautioned that the per pupil figures should be considered approximations, since programs could potentially absorb more or fewer pupils while maintaining a similar total cost.

New attendance requirements

The new law also addresses attendance and dropouts. It requires that schools notify parents if a child is absent from school and they have not received notification of the absence from a parent within three days. In addition, public schools will be required to meet with parents of a student with five or more unexcused absences in a year to develop an action plan to improve his or her attendance.

The MVPS and Charter School already have pupil absence notification systems in place, Mr. Weiss and Mr. Moore said.

The new law reduces the number of consecutive absences that triggers a dropout notice to parents from 15 to 10, and the number of days in which a notice must be sent to parents from 10 to 5. It also requires that a superintendent and team of school personnel conduct an exit interview with students who wish to drop out, with their parents if possible, to discuss the detriments of leaving school, benefits of earning a diploma, and available alternative education programs. DESE is required to develop a model protocol for the exit interviews, and to compile a list of research and information about the consequences of dropping out and community resources to keep students in school.

Mr. Weiss said the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents has asked Commissioner Chester to form an advisory council of superintendents and principals to help the DESE better understand the impact of some of the things they are asking educators to do.

“There is a concern among superintendents across the Commonwealth that the department keeps coming up with initiatives and requirements and mandates, and there’s no money and no assistance, and it’s really very difficult,” Mr. Weiss said. “And this is just another one.”