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Educators look for discipline options

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More than 1,000 students are suspended in Johnson County schools each year, and typically more than 100 are expelled; but for the past few years counseling and alternative programs have led to fewer students being removed from class.

During the 2011-12 school year, the most recent numbers available, 1,067 students were suspended and 117 were expelled. Those numbers are down from past years, along with the number of students suspended or kicked out due to drugs, alcohol or weapons, according to data from the Indiana Department of Education and Center Grove schools.

School officials credit the drop to opening alternative academies, which allow students to finish school in programs outside traditional classrooms, and working with students to avoid kicking them out of school, if possible.

School districts don’t want to suspend or expel students. The more time those students spend out of class, the greater the risk they won’t finish high school.

That’s why alternative academies and alternative-to-expulsion programs can provide additional and sometimes final options for students who would otherwise have to be removed from school.

“Those kids are still ours, and the goal is to get them graduated,” Clark-Pleasant assistant superintendent John Schilawski said.

“However, sometimes their behaviors are such that you have to take somewhat drastic measures to promote the safety of all students.”

From the 2009-10 school year to the 2011-12 school year, the number of students suspended dropped 24 percent, and the number expelled dropped 5 percent. Two significant drops were at Center Grove and Clark-Pleasant schools.

Center Grove suspended 234 students during the 2011-12 school year, down 42 percent from three years earlier, and expelled four students, down from 11 two years before.

The district opened an alternative academy in 2005 so students who weren’t succeeding in traditional classrooms had another option for finishing high school. That included students who had problems getting along with their peers or teachers, assistant superintendent Bill Long said.

As more students with behavior problems or who weren’t able to focus in regular classrooms have enrolled in the alternative academy, where they take online courses that they can complete at their own pace, fewer have been suspended and expelled, Long said.

Clark-Pleasant suspended 259 students during the 2011-12 school year, down about 22 percent from two years before, but the number of students expelled more than doubled, from 12 to 31 students.

Both school districts also had a decrease in the number of students suspended or expelled because of drug, alcohol or weapons, down 38 percent at Clark-Pleasant schools and down 26 percent at Center Grove schools, according to state data.

Suspension and expulsion policies vary by school district. Offenses such as using drugs or alcohol and bringing those items to class typically will get a student kicked out, but the length of the punishment can vary depending on whether school officials take a student’s past behavior and context into account. Center Grove and Clark-Pleasant also both have alternative-to-expulsion programs, which Schilawski hopes will stop students from being kicked out.

If Clark-Pleasant students brings drugs or alcohol to school, it is likely they’ll be expelled so school officials can ensure the items aren’t passed to other students, Schilawski said.

“That is an automatic determination that you have brought it here for whatever purpose, and we cannot be assured that you were not transmitting that substance. We still take a very harsh line,” he said.

Student who are under the influence could be given a second chance, if school officials feel they deserve it. If the student admits to violating the school district’s drug and alcohol policy and is willing stop breaking the rules, and if the student has never been in serious trouble before, then that student could qualify for the alternative-to-suspension program.

The program is the last chance for students — if they’re truant, if they start a fight or come to school high or drunk, they’ll likely be expelled. But if they follow the rules, then they can continue attending Clark-Pleasant classes and participate in clubs and sports teams, Schilawski said.

“We doing this because we want to see the child be successful, and we feel they’ve made a mistake,” Schilawski said. “They can do everything a typical student can do. The difference is, they have no room to mess up in all of that.”

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