A state committee looking into ways to revamp school discipline rules has come up with a promising recommendation: Remove “zero tolerance” mandates that take make automatic determinations without considering any of the surrounding factors.

This is an important issue. In 2014-15, the most recent for which statistics are available, about 60,000 students were suspended from public schools across Louisiana. About two-thirds of those students are black.

That is a wildly disproportionate number in a state where only 45 percent of the public school students are black.

Another 18 percent of the suspensions were of students with disabilities.

Part of the reason behind the suspension numbers is that state law employs zero tolerance policies that require certain disciplinary actions in response to certain offenses.

While that might seem to make some sense, it actually works against administrators’ and teachers’ ability to use common sense and best practices in meting out discipline. It prohibits the decision makers from actually making decisions based on all the factors surrounding each incident.

The Advisory Council on Student Behavior and Discipline is trying to recommend ways the state can get on the right path toward classrooms where students are able to learn while addressing some of the disparities in the discipline numbers.

Council Chairwoman Jennifer Coco, a New Orleans lawyer, said taking away zero tolerance mandates would place discipline decisions back in the hands of the people best able to make them.

“Can we differentiate between ... serious consequences versus the student who has been disrespectful?” she asked.

The key going forward will be to give local educators and administrators more flexibility in how to handle their students — a principle that should work better than trying to implement a one-size-fits-all approach at the state level.

The council is off to a good start.

Removing zero tolerance mandates won’t fix everything that’s wrong with public school discipline, but it will put power and discretion back in the hands of the people most able to use it wisely.

“I see it as an opportunity to trust those school leaders more,” said council member Caroline Roemer.

That is a great step in the right direction.

The discipline numbers are so skewed that this one simple step likely won’t fix them. But it will return some local control to our schools — where it belongs.

 

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