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'Stand Your Ground' Focus Of Duval School Board Student Discipline Talks

Duval County Public Schools

Changes proposed in the 2014-15 Duval County Schools Code of Student Conduct aim to take a more individualized and less stringent approach to penalizing students, but one school board member argued Tuesday that one such revision doesn’t go far enough.

The question of self-defense became the central focus of the discussion on the series of changes to the district’s code Tuesday.

“The way this current proposal reads is we are punishing a child who is exercising their own legal rights to self-defense,” school board member Jason Fischer said.

Fischer was referring to revisions to the district’s one-size-fits-all approach to school fights.

Under the revised code of conduct proposed by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, students would be penalized according to their role in the fight.

“In the new code of conduct, we differentiate between initiating a fight, being a combatant — meaning you premeditatedly get involved into a fight — or you’re responding to a fight,” he said.

As it stands now in the district, all students involved in a fight face the same punishment. However, under the revised code of conduct,  those who initiate a fight or are mutually involved in it would face harsher penalties than students who fought as a response to an attack.

For instance, a student determined to be an aggressor or mutual participant in a fight will face a mandatory minimum sentence of one day of in-school suspension. That is in addition to other disciplinary measures, such as participating in a “restorative justice” program and or a behavioral contract. Restorative justice refers to programs focused on repairing relationships between victims and offenders, such as meetings between the two sides to talk about the consequences of their actions.

Students who are simply reacting to an aggressor would face lighter penalties such as detention or a restorative justice program, Vitti said.

But Fischer said even with the revisions in place, the code of conduct doesn’t go far enough in protecting victims who are trying to protect themselves. During the meeting, he echoed language found in the state’s Stand Your Ground laws.

“When, in fact, you’re in a place where you’re legally allowed to be, you have no duty to retreat if you’re attacked. You have a legal right to defend yourself,” Fischer said.

The reference wasn’t lost on school board members, including Fred “Fel” Lee, who asked Vitti how other districts handle Stand Your Ground laws in schools, “which is basically what we’re talking about,” he said.

“We’re taking Stand Your Ground… and I think there are aspects of it that can be considered, but I do think the way we address situations has be framed in the educational context and that we’re dealing with children,” Vitti said.

Other school board members, including Ashley Smith-Juarez worried putting a provision in place to shield students who claim self-defense from consequences could send the wrong message.

“I think that a process by which they work with an adult when they are violent with another student is not a bad thing, and I don’t think it’s something that we should shy away from,” she said.

Fischer said he plans to raise the issue again next month when the board is scheduled to vote on the revised code.

“I heard their concerns and I think their heart is in the right place,” he said. “I don’t think that fighting is acceptable either, but what we’re talking about is self-defense and you do have a right to self-defense...When a child’s been attacked they shouldn’t be punished for defending themselves.”

The revisions are part of a move toward a more progressive approach to discipline, Vitti said — a shift away from a traditionally more punitive, reactionary measures.

Among the changes discussed next year, the district also wants to establish a discipline plan at every school, incorporating a system of evidence-based, non-punitive strategies for improving behavior known as Positive Behavior Support. The approach, modeled after techniques developed through Individuals with Disabilities Act, has grown in popularity among schools across the country since the early 2000's.

The district is also placing a greater emphasis on in-school suspensions, Vitti said.

“Previously, our system and school systems around the country have relied mainly on outdoor suspensions, which never gets to the root cause of the problem,” he said. “We’ve been giving outdoor suspensions to kids for a long time in Duval County Public Schools, and it hasn’t changed what’s perceived as safety and what’s perceived as high quality climate for learning.”  

Other changes to the Code of Student Conduct for next year, include:

  • Establishing separate codes of conduct for elementary and secondary schools.
  • Providing more explicit and consistent consequences for each infraction type and occurrence, but also some flexibility to allow administrators and deans to decide consequences based on the level of severity.  
  • Defining a series of steps that must be taken by teachers before issuing a discipline referrals to students. Those steps include student conferences, contacting parents, or guidance referral.
  • Differentiating discipline for violations related to the use of electronic devices such as cell phones or viewing improper websites.
  • Differentiating consequences for the use or possession of alcohol or tobacco versus the sale of such items.

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson. 

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.