Student Codes of Conduct: Mastering the Basics
Without effective classroom management, student academic achievement will never be realized. This is true not only for the classroom, but for the entire school building. Ineffective student management processes result in confusion, frustration, disappointment, and lack of confidence in the administration from students, faculty, and parents.
We know how difficult it is to assign fair and just consequences. A well-thought-out code of conduct with appropriate consequences helps mitigate a difficult conversation with a parent. Consider the following outline for developing a student code of conduct:
- Create a list of potential offenses. Use the prohibited conduct items listed in your board policy or administrative regulations to generate this list. Be general enough to include infractions that fit into a given category. For example, writing on the bathroom wall is too specific and falls under the category of vandalism. Include a statement that your list is not comprehensive and that administration reserves the right to assign consequences for behaviors not listed.
- Create a list of potential consequences. Having students pick up garbage the morning after Friday night’s football game instead of serving a day of in-school suspension (ISS) is effective. But students need supervision, and that means paying someone to watch them pick up the trash—using resources and money the school doesn’t have. Out-of-school suspension (OSS) is not an effective consequence for many, but it is a necessary step if all possible consequences are exhausted before a superintendent’s hearing is scheduled.
- Create and administer a survey that suggests a consequence for each offense. Survey parents, students, teachers, administrators, and district residents in order to create a community standard—consequences agreed upon by the school and community. Consider asking student council, the building planning team, and the parent-teacher association to participate, especially if you encounter low response from a voluntary approach. Collect completed surveys and average the results; the consequences for each offense will become clear. Be familiar with case law, and know how the courts will rule when the consequence is challenged. For example, know students’ legal rights when they wear hats on school property before arriving at a community standard that might contradict case law.
- Categorize offenses and consequences into levels. Level-one offenses are low-level offenses that deserve low-level consequences, such as a warning or after-school detention. Top-level offenses deserve multiple days of OSS, a possible superintendent’s hearing, or even police involvement. Create a table to include in the student and parent handbooks that summarizes—by level—the consequences for anticipated offenses. Include board policy, administrative regulations, or student handbook references to clearly define the infraction. (See the chart below as an example.)
- Build in progressive discipline. Detention for being late to class one time is appropriate, but one detention for 20 tardies in the same week isn’t. Build progressive discipline into your leveled offenses so that multiple instances within a specific time frame bump up the consequence to the next level. For example, class tardiness is a level-one offense deserving of an after-school detention. But the third and fourth instance of tardiness within one month becomes a level-two offense, perhaps deserving a two-hour after-school detention.
- Build in progressive leniency. Some students make a streak of poor decisions, and then one day they realize their errors. Progressive discipline is appropriate for those not working to improve, but progressive leniency is appropriate for those who are working to do better. For example, level-one offenses are forgiven after one month and no longer play a part in the progression. Level-two offenses are expunged after two months, level-three after three months, and so forth. A disciplinary system that takes good behavior into consideration is not only just, it also provides students with the incentive to maintain good behavior.
- Maintain accurate records. I had a talented technology person who developed a database program for tracking student discipline. She created drop-down menus for quick entry and allowed me to develop reports that included student summaries, frequency, and types of offenses and staff referrals. But the process can also be accomplished with pen and paper or a current student management system that is adaptable to the above steps.
- Be proactive. As is common, I spent 90 percent of my time with 5 percent of the student population, mostly eighth-, ninth-, and 10th-grade boys. Early intervention is the best approach and should include activities that foster strong and healthy relationships, such as in-house counseling supports, student-to-student and student-to-teacher mentoring programs, participation in extracurricular activities, and involvement with nontraditional vocational schools, social services, and local law enforcement.
Practical Tips for Implementing Discipline
I remember being on the phone with a mother, telling her of all her son’s horrendous actions and asking her to pick him up because he was suspended. Only after I had her in tears did we realize I had dialed the wrong parent! Here are some things I’ve learned along the way:
- Let students know they’re heard. When I first started doling out consequences, students often responded with “It wasn’t me!” or “I didn’t do it.” I would respond, “Here’s the big picture, if you feel you are being unjustly accused, it is your responsibility to follow up with the teacher. I’m scheduling your after-school detention for tomorrow, and if the teacher concludes she is mistaken, then she will need to see me to remove the consequence.”
- If reasonable and practical, the referring staff member should be involved in the consequence. As a teacher, I held detention with students if the offense was under my supervision. Taking responsibility for what happens in my classroom sends a powerful message to students. The potential relationship building far outweighs any consequence doled out by a third party.
- Define and maintain roles between administrators and counselors. Both have responsibility in ensuring the success of the students, but counselors should not apply discipline, and principals should not counsel. Share behavioral data with your student support team, and jointly develop plans to assist struggling students.
- Troubleshoot various situations. For instance, what if the code of conduct calls for a day of ISS, but the student’s mother desperately wants her son to remain in class? Instead of one day of ISS, the principal might assign five days of after-school detention, or perhaps three two-hour detentions—this time. It helps to have the parent on your side, which is more likely to happen if you can involve them in determining the consequences.
- Be careful that the consequence isn’t the beginning or the end of a conversation with the student. Consequences alone rarely change behavior, but the principal’s relationship with the student can. Take time to discuss the what and the why of the poor decision and how to avoid it next time. If detention isn’t a deterrent, perhaps having to listen to a lecture will be.
- Use a point system to keep track of student discipline. A student receives one point for each detention, three points for an after-school detention, five points for each day of ISS, and 10 points for each day of OSS. The point system allowed us to easily identify our at-risk students and—through a comparison of points from the previous quarter—identify those who showed significant improvement. There is no better way to gain parent support than having an administrator call home to say, “Congratulations, your student did a great job these last 10 weeks.”
- Be sure to follow through and communicate with all parties involved. One common approach is to reference the category for the infraction, previous relevant offenses, and the corresponding consequence. Triplicate the processed referral, with one copy maintained in the student disciplinary folder, one copy mailed home, and one copy returned to the referring individual.
Every encounter between a student and staff member is a learning/teaching experience. Therefore, administration must reserve the right to modify these guidelines in extenuating circumstances.
Keith Palmer is a retired public school administrator from western New York.