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South Hills

New TJ discipline matrix creates clear standards, outlines punishments

| Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, 6:33 a.m.

A student found violating the Thomas Jefferson High School dress code will receive a warning letter and have to change before heading back to class.

That’s just the first time.

For their second offense, the student will receive after-school detention. By the third time, they will get Saturday detention and be deemed ineligible for extracurricular activities for one week.

It doesn’t matter who the student is or which of the school’s three principals handles the incident — discipline for all incidents now will be handled the same across the board, administrators say.

The 2018-19 Thomas Jefferson handbook, approved by school board members on Aug. 21, establishes a discipline matrix outlining how school leaders will handle more than 60 student infractions. For each, there’s a definition of what constitutes the infraction, from a bus violation to disruptive behavior. Then, there are guidelines for how first, second and third offenses will be handled, in a progressive manner.

“The idea was to be as transparent, accountable, consistent and as fair as possible,” Superintendent Michael Ghilani said.

There has been a “perception in the district,” Ghilani said, that “students are treated differently, depending on who they are.

“We don’t ever want that to be the perception,” he said. “We want our discipline and how we treat students to be rooted in fairness and teaching. I think when there’s ambiguous expectations or there’s a perception that everyone is treated differently, it leads to an environment (where) there is not a lot of trust. We wanted to firm that up by having a very open, transparent and clear code of conduct.”

The matrix creates a set standard for how every student will be disciplined.

“So, when you cut a class and it’s found to be true, you know automatically that that first offense is going to be a Saturday detention,” Principal Pete Murphy said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s me dealing with a student, if it’s (assistant Principal Adam) Knaresborough or (assistant Principal Paul) Ware. It doesn’t matter. It’s consistent. We tried to create a matrix that we felt was fair.”

Having a set of standards laid out puts the responsibility on the students, Ghilani said.

Students now have a clear definition of what is expected of them. It will be broadcast on social media and the district website, and students and their parents must sign off on the handbook.

Each time a student violates the rules, their discipline progresses, Murphy said.

“There are a lot of offenses, like assault, like bullying, that have a restorative piece to it,” Ghilani said. “Restorative actions that actually look to heal and change the environment and culture do have a lasting impact on the student environment and culture and actually teach.”

The district is looking to have the high school principals and counselors trained in restoration techniques, Ghilani said.

The code of conduct also includes a new definition on bullying that will help with enforcement.

Ghilani said the old definition was vague, and the district needed a definition that was “operational.”

“One of the things we heard from parents was, when things are reported, nothing is ever done about it,” Ghilani said. Having definitions that can allow district leaders to take action is important, he said.

According to the discipline matrix, punishment for the first time a student is found to be bullying another student includes three days out-of-school suspension, a police citation, a parent meeting and mediation.

“We want to stop it as soon as possible,” Murphy said. “We know that this is a hot button issue. It’s not just here — it’s everywhere in the United States. So we want to take a very strong stance on bullying. We want kids to know where we stand. We want to draw the line very clear for them.”

District leaders say they will focus on the positive behavior of students as every discipline is meant to teach something.

A team of administrators began working on the matrix in February. As a new high school principal and vice principal were hired later in the year, they, too, began working on the chart.

Many of the changes also came from district leaders tapping into the core values adopted for the district including empathy, respect and integrity, Ghilani said.

“I think the good news is that we’re all on the same page. We’re all pushing towards this common goal, which is a transparent approach that parents will understand and students will understand what the expectations are and also what the ramifications are when the expectations are not met,” school board president Brian Fernandes added.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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