UPDATED**! DESE released updated guidance related to student discipline and out-of-school suspensions following a 2022 mental health law. Take a look at what this language does – and does not- include regarding schools and student discipline policies.
As part of An Act Addressing Barriers to Care for Mental Health (Chapter 177 of the Acts of 2022), school leaders may be required to update school-based policies concerning student behavior and emergency management.
The Guidance on Updated Expectations for School and District Leaders Related to Student Discipline mostly summarizes the statutory language and provides links to other Department of Elementary and Secondary Education programs. DESE recently published additional research on their Rethinking Discipline Initiative page.
How does the revised language change requirements for schools? It’s complicated. This is a tale of three parts of Massachusetts General Laws:
- G.L. c. 71, § 37H and G.L. c. 71, § 37H 1/2 govern the processes related to felonies, possession of dangerous weapons or controlled substances, or assaults on school faculty or staff.
- G.L. c. 71, § 37H¾ governs suspensions and expulsions of students not named under 37H and 37H 1/2.
The new language applies ONLY to § 37H ¾ and require that school districts attempt and document alternative measures to re-engage students in certain circumstances before imposing suspension or expulsion. Until recently, school decision-makers retained full discretion under § 37H¾ to impose suspension as a disciplinary measure and this is reiterated in regulations. Additionally 603 CMR 53.05 Alternatives to Suspension under M.G.L. c. 71, § 37H¾ requires principals to consider alternative evidence-based strategies prior to suspension. (It is possible these regulations will also be amended to reflect the new guidance and laws.)
Regardless of the category of the offence, the school principal retains the authority to utilize an Emergency Removal under 603 CMR 53.07 to temporarily remove the student from the premises for safety reasons or to prevent a material and substantial disruption of the school. An Emergency Removal may occur prior to implementing the necessary hearings to suspend.
Many concerns have been flagged because of misinterpretation of the statutory requirements. Does the statutory language or DESE guidance prohibit any specific in-school practices for addressing classroom disruption? No.
But are out-of-school suspension or other emergency removals still permitted? Yes.
Also New: Emergency Management Plans must include Behavioral Health
Districts will be expected to revise Medical Emergency Response Plans by September 1, 2023 to include new elements that support behavioral health and physical health of students. DESE intends to update their Model Medical Emergency Response Plan to incorporate the required new elements. The current Plan assumes the school has a full-time School Nurse, an AED and radio communication systems.
UPDATE: DESE has released the revised Model Medical and Behavioral Health Emergency Response Plans as of June 2023. Districts are expected to revise their local plans for the 2023-24 school year and submit revised plans to DESE no later than September 1, 2024.
Several substantial changes to school discipline procedures have been adopted since 2012. Among the changes are obligations for schools to ensure students removed from class have the opportunity to make academic progress during in-school, short-term suspensions, long-term suspensions or expulsions. Schools were no longer permitted to refuse to allow students to make up school assignments or lose credit solely due to suspensions.
Students with disabilities have additional rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) when a suspension is considered. This includes a review with the child’s IEP Team to determine if the child’s behavior was caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to, the child’s disability, or if the behavior was the direct result of the district’s failure to implement the IEP or the implementation of a functional behavior assessment
All districts are required to annually report incidents that result in any suspension or removal of the student from class for more than a ½ day. Districts are required to submit annual data through the School Safety and Discipline Report and high level data is published publicly through the DESE Student Discipline Data Report (filter by school, district and offense type). The Civil Rights Data Collection student discipline data analysis tools allow searching of school and district discipline data by student demographics.
The revised language and guidance presents opportunities for educators to initiate conversations on safe and supporting learning environments. Rather than presume that trauma-sensitive learning models will be implemented solely by a classroom educator, this presents an opportunity for schools to review protocols for engaging counselors and other resources at the onset of disengagement or dysregulated behaviors.
All Massachusetts public schools are required to publish written policies related to student conduct and disciplinary procedures. The student handbook for each school must be approved by the school site council and the school committee each year.
Educators should participate in the reviews of student handbooks and school policies annually to explore opportunities to engage students with just-in-time behavioral interventions and Tier 2 and 3 support services at the onset of disruptive behavior; not limited until after classroom-based discipline has been exhausted.