The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School committee accepted changes to the student handbook and code of conduct that seek to reduce incidents related to vaping, hazing, and harassment.
Principal Sara Dingledy said at the committee’s Monday meeting that in 2019, the school saw fewer incidents that could result in suspension than in 2018. According to Dingledy, the school went from a 25 percent chronic absentee rate in 2018 to a 14.7 percent rate in 2019.
“With these things in place, more kids are with us in school,” Dingledy said. “Chronic absenteeism is on the rise across the state. We are putting a lot of work into keeping our kids in school.”
Dingledy said the decision to make the changes in the handbook was discussed at the School Advisory Council over a span of about three meetings. “Our goal is to reduce the number of incidents that destabilize the school environment or are counter to a positive learning experience,” Dingledy said.
With the changes implemented in the handbook, the first offense for a Class C incident such as vaping in school or on school grounds may result in one to three days of out-of-school suspension. This is the same penalty as for being under the influence of, or using, “alcohol, drugs, or other controlled substances on school grounds or at a school-sponsored activity, including field trips, buses,” according to the handbook. A second infraction may result in three to five days of out-of-school suspension.
Dingledy said there have been opportunities to discuss the revisions at SAC: “There are some that would want OSS off the table altogether for Class C, but there are some that would say ‘keep it where it is.’”
Dingledy said members of SAC and the school committee agreed to take another detailed look at the incident and absentee data in January. “The trend we see right now is going down. Does that mean that everyone is stopping vaping? I’m not sure,” Dingledy said. “But the way it has been interrupting our school day in general has been reduced.”
Given the issues of hazing and harassment related to sports, committee member Amy Houghton asked what the plan is for being clear with students and parents about the role and responsibility of being on a team.
“We see any extracurricular activity or trip as inherently a privilege. We want people to access those things, but there is an expectation of how you behave on a sports team,” Dingledy said.
She said one measure the school is taking to educate students on harassment and hazing, and to prevent similar behaviors, is to invite guest speakers to sports nights. “The guest speakers would target issues around building a positive team culture not based on exclusion, or making people feel less than what they are,” Dingledy said.
She said the philosophy around harassing language is that there “should be a chance to have education transmitted to students,” instead of just punitive action.
She said with many incidents that could incur out-of-school suspension, the school will attempt to intervene with that student, and have a meeting with the student and their parents. “We don’t usually go right to OSS, we usually have intervention,” Dingledy said.
Rebekah El-Deiry, a member of the Dukes County Associate Commissioners for Youth, said she thinks one day of out-of-school suspension is “way better than three.”
“Some people might not even notice that child is gone, so they might not get the stigma for being kicked out, which I think is the problem with OSS,” El-Deiry said.
However, El-Deiry said, she strongly advocates for a first-strike rule, where instead of being suspended upon a first offense for vaping, the student is educated and given an opportunity to correct his or her actions.
El-Deiry asked whether there was a way to test vapes to see if they contain tobacco or marijuana, and then determine the level of punishment.
But Dingledy said that vapes do not contain tobacco, but “straight-up nicotine”: “The impact nicotine has functions in many cases like a drug does for student behavior,” Dingledy said.
“We set a tone with these changes, and are trying to give students reasons for refusal. Sports, suspension — I am hoping we will have armed kids coming into the school with a reason to refuse these things,” Dingledy said.
All of the revisions were accepted, and the committee agreed to add language regarding compliance with Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association rules, as well as for students obeying Junior Operator License laws.