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Answers Still Unavailable On Impacts Of New Expulsion Law

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Here is a transcript from the second half of the Dec. 1 Westford School Committee meeting. For highlights from the meeting, click here.

8:34 p.m. – The agenda then went to the new law regarding expulsions and suspensions discussed earlier in the evening.

Before the law, students were suspended or expelled under Chapter 71 Section 37H and 37H ½ in Massachusetts General Law.

The new law, 71-37H ¾ says that any students requiring discipline that don’t fall under 37H or H ½ (students who have committed a felony, attacked a faculty member, or possessed controlled substances or dangerous weapons in school) that the school principals must consider other methods other than expulsions and suspensions.

Superintendent Bill Olsen said that the School Committee in Westford had addressed this in recent years before the new law was passed, which was laudable.

The purpose of the new law according to Olsen was to encourage and facilitate students who are frequently absent and help instruct students with serious issues rather than provide “zero tolerance” policies.

The major provisions of the new law require specific procedural requirements for all suspensions or expulsions outside of 37H and H ½ and that educational services are required for any suspensions or expulsions lasting longer than ten days.

It also puts a 90 day suspension limit for non-37H and 37 H ½ suspensions or expulsions.

A verbal and written notice and the opportunity to be heard must be given before any suspension.

David Keele
David Keele

Those accused also must be given the opportunity to examine records and be represented by legal counsel.

Students may be removed through “emergency removals” for up to two days.

There are differences between “long-term” and “short-term” removal hearings and that no “long-term” suspension (outside of 37H and 37H ½ can extend beyond a school year.)

Principals must provide a written decision and that a copy must be given to the superintendent for children under third grade.

Olsen said that younger children bringing squirt guns to school may be suspended, although common sense should be used whenever possible.

Appeals of suspensions may be brought to the superintendent for long-term suspensions, short-term suspensions that last more than ten days or in-school suspensions that last more than ten days.

Students and parents have five days to appeal to the superintendent.

Olsen gave more details on the appeal process, saying that the schools must be as specific as possible.

Any student serving suspension will be have the opportunity to make up any assignments, tests or papers during their period of removal from schools.

Each principal must provide a school-wide service plan that could include tutors, night school, alternative schools or other methods of instruction.

The schools must verify that the expelled or suspended students taking a method of instruction during their suspension.

Instructional costs are partially eligible for reimbursement “subject to appropriation” under circuit breaker legislation, although some costs like transportation or administrative costs cannot be reimbursed.

Disciplinary data must be given to the state and a “Pupil Absence Notification Program” if a child is absent from school and the parent hasn’t informed the school within three days of the absence.

Parents have to be notified after five unexcused absences or late arrivals in a year.

Olsen said that this is another layer that makes it difficult to do all things well.

Under the new law, there are also stricter requirements for consecutive absences, requiring principals to provide written notice within ten consecutive days rather than 15 before the law.

Olsen said that most of this law addresses situations at the high school level, although it may affect other levels.

8:53 p.m. – School Committee member Margaret Murray asked if there was some level of experience for special needs students that might be placed under this law, Olsen said there had been.

Murray then suggested flow charts on the process be provided and asked about expelled or suspended students who transferred to other school districts and whether Westford would be responsible.

Olsen said that expelled or suspended students that were transferred become the responsibility of those school districts.

Murray asked if the transfer was the same if it occurred during the year.

Olsen said that the cut off for special needs students is April 1, that after April 1 it is the responsibility of the school district where the student was coming from.

School Committee member Angela Harkness noted that that is date is not noted in this law.

Murray then asked about circuit breaker funding, absence notifications and whether school districts can band together to make this less of a cumbersome procedure.

School Committee member David Keele said he chuckled when Olsen said he’d answer any questions because nobody knows the answers yet.

Keele said that this may impact urban districts, but it would not be an impact to Westford due to the negligible likelihood this will happen here.

He then said this should be considered a contingency component in the budget.

Olsen agreed.

There was more discussion on this regarding the nomenclature of what a “contingency” is.

Murray agreed that this law would have a negligible impact but said it would be good to provide data for future use.

Harkness noted that two kids that have very different needs that are expelled that two different types of services need to be required and that allocated money can be spent quickly.

School Committee member Terrance Ryan noted that parents choose the type of instruction that the expelled students receive, unlike special needs students.

School Committee Acting Chairman Arthur Benoit said that current collaborative would be the first choice, although the answer is still unclear since this process has never been done before.

Keele said that if this is taken as a contingency, this would help prevent Westford from being blindsided with a budget deficit.

School Committee member Erika Kohl also noted that this is an optional choice to expel certain students and that the fact that there is money in the budget should impact any decisions.

Harkness said that money should not be a factor in any decisions, that decisions should revolve around whether this is the best thing for any impacted children.

There was more discussion between Harkness and Kohl, with Kohl saying that kids who do not provide a safety risk, such as students in possession of marijuana, should keep their access to current staff members, saying that segregated staff members would provide a lower quality education.

Keele referred that to the decriminalization of marijuana in society.

Benoit noted that marijuana is no longer a controlled substance and he asked where he could find a list of controlled substances.

Keele said he does not want marijuana inside of school buildings. Olsen said that marijuana is not allowed in school buildings statewide.

Kohl noted that marijuana is still under the list of controlled substances.

Harkness said that controlled substances would be addressed under 37H, which this law does not address.

Keele said that everyone is asking good questions, but the law is deliberately vague and that no one will know until a judge makes a decision.

He also noted that the contingency figure may be lower or higher than what is proposed, but nobody really knows the answer yet.

Olsen said that nobody knows yet.

Assistant Superintendent Kerry Clery noted Kohl’s statement stating that the law basically eliminates “zero-tolerance” policies, which could relate to what she said.

Olsen thanked the members of the board for their patience and Keele was appreciative that he is not in an urban district.

9:14 p.m. – The interventionist contract approval was postponed, with payroll warrants and several sets of minutes approved and the meeting adjourned.