How San Diego School Districts Are Dealing With Discipline In The Age Of COVID-19
On the first day of the new school year at the Sweetwater Union High School District, a student brandished a firearm during a virtual class session The police were called and officers arrived at the student’s residence to find that the weapon was a BB gun and no one was harmed.
Later that week, the district, which was the first in the county to start the fall semester, received reports of students sharing pornographic images during online classes.
These incidents make it clear that while classrooms might be virtual, disruptive classroom behaviors are still very real. It adds yet another layer of complexity to the challenges facing teachers and administrators as they try to maintain order and limit learning loss while teaching online during the pandemic.
“We make some assumptions that kids know that when they’re in their bedrooms or the dining room table they’re held to the same levels of conduct that they would be if you were sitting in a classroom,” said Jamie Dayhoff, director of attendance and discipline at Poway Unified School District. “I don’t think we can make those assumptions.”
Dayhoff and other school officials said students will be punished for disrupting online classes, and the state education code requires suspensions, and even expulsions, for certain offenses. They also acknowledge they’ll have to take extra steps to make sure the punishments don’t exacerbate the already tenuous connections they have with students in the COVID-19 era.
Sweetwater spokesman Manny Rubio declined to comment on individual student cases, but he said the district has made it clear to students that they are expected to be respectful in the virtual classroom, just as they would be in a physical classroom.
“We want to make sure we’re using all the different tools available to us,” Rubio said. “During distance learning, we still have our counselors, administrators reach out to parents.”
The California Education Code provides little leeway for districts even in the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic. Among the behaviors that can lead to suspension or expulsion are possession of a weapon, threatening harm to others and bullying.
That said, district officials say they are still working to emphasize restorative justice and other alternatives to punitive discipline, in part to eliminate the disproportionate impact on students of color, students with disabilities and low-income students.
Dayhoff said that especially during distance learning the goal is to keep all students motivated and connected to their classrooms, even if they are suspended.
“It’s not just a consequence,” he said. “This is a learning process.”
Daniel Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA worries that when physical campuses reopen, districts will revert to overly punitive practices in the potentially dangerous learning environment created by the pandemic.
“There are a lot of districts that were still suspending kids right and left for all sorts of reasons. Often many of them were minor offenses,” Losen said. “We’ll see more schools opening up, but they won’t have the resources in place.”
He’s concerned, for example, that a shoving match between students or a confrontation with a teacher where a student violates social distancing could lead to harsher penalties due to the public health risks involved with physical contact.
“I do worry that unless we really provide the support for appropriate interventions, one response might be that teachers and administrators will call police more often than before because now every small incident could have a danger component that didn’t exist before,” Losen said.
Dayhoff said planning and communication will be key to avoiding such scenarios.
“We want you to be relaxed and be able to learn, but you can’t be disrupting,” Dayhoff said. “There are certain things you just cannot do. The more specific we can get with students on scenarios, the better.”