Amid rising suspensions, Portsmouth considers changes to student discipline

School board set to vote Saturday on new policies for upcoming school year

PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) -- Several changes to the Code of Student Conduct are being proposed to help decrease the number of out-of-school suspensions given to students.

Over the last three years, data shows suspensions have increased in Portsmouth by nearly 19 percent.

In January, a 10 On Your Side investigation revealed Portsmouth suspended 2,449 students in 2016. That is more than any other school division in Hampton Roads.

Longtime educator Shirley Edwards says parents need to do their part in teaching kids right from wrong, but teachers need to improve their relationships with families and students.

"It has a lot to do with the staffing that you have to support the school," said Edwards. "It's not just the teachers. It should be your aides, your family workers, because everyone has a role."

One of the newly proposed changes would decrease the amount of out-of-school suspensions for kids who skip or come late to class. The punishment would be a Level 1 offense, which means a student could not be suspended out of school for a first offense.

"It doesn't make much sense that a student is missing school, missing class, and then you are going to turn around and suspend them out of school," said Ted Lamb.

Lamb, who's served four years on the Portsmouth School Board, is also in favor of a new clause to help victims of bullying. In the past, he says victims of fights have been suspended for defending themselves.

"What's happening now is you are counting the victim as the aggressor and to me, that is actually just emboldening the aggressor," he said.

Other tweaks include lesser punishment for students who use cell phones and other electronic devices in class.

The district is also proposing a change to the weapons policy that gives administrators more choices in handling cases involving weapon look-a-likes.

Under the current policy, students with toy or paper guns have been suspended as if they were a real weapon, according to Lamb.

"Bringing in a toy weapon is not acceptable; it's not appropriate even according to this new policy, but as far as being treated as the same, you just got to look at the circumstances."

Edwards says she's happy to see new guidelines that give different punishment to elementary students than middle and high school students. For example, a second violation of a Level 1 offense could result in a secondary student getting a three-day suspension, but elementary students would get a maximum of one day out of school.

She says only time will tell if the changes actually decrease the number of kids being kicked out of class.

"Every parent wants the best for their child and when they send them to school they kind of think the school is going to do their job."

The Portsmouth School Board will vote on the proposed changes on Saturday at a special meeting.

10 On Your Side is still working to get final suspension numbers for the 2016-2017 school year. The district says the numbers are not yet available.

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