school bus

Advocate file photo by LESLIE WESTBROOK

Amid disparities in racial and other public school suspensions, a state panel Friday began debating how to change state laws and rules governing classroom discipline.

One of the broad principles endorsed by the group would remove "zero tolerance mandates" for student misbehavior that officials said tie the hands of teachers, administrators and school boards.

The committee, which has been meeting periodically for the past year, is called the Advisory Council on Student Behavior and Discipline.

It was set up by a 2016 state law, and members are crafting recommendations for the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the state Department of Education.

Those suggestions could pave the way for efforts to change state law during the 2018 regular legislative session.

Jennifer Coco, a New Orleans attorney who is chairing the council, said current rules and laws do not encourage school administrators to consider a wide range of options when students run afoul of school rules.

"Can we differentiate between ... serious consequences versus the student who has been disrespectful?" Coco asked.

Even defining disrespect in schools, she said, has sparked repeated disagreements. "What does disrespect mean?" Coco asked.

She said the issue is especially relevant at a time when numerous students with disabilities, and a disproportionate number of students of color, are being suspended from public schools.

In 2014-15, the latest figures available, about 60,000 students were suspended, and about two thirds were black students. Nearly 11,000 students with disabilities were tossed out of schools during the same school year.

But what to do about those trends has sparked arguments on the panel, including concerns that wholesale revisions in school discipline rules could spark problems for educators.

Brad Prudhomme, a member of the council,  said he would not want any changes to handcuff school administrators. 

"Yes, we can work with the kids," said Prudhomme, who works with student services in Vermilion Parish.

However, he said he would not want school officials to second guess themselves on how to respond to discipline problems. "That is what I am concerned about," Prudhomme said.

"Put yourself in the shoes of a school administrator who is trying to keep a school safe and have a great learning environment," Prudhomme said.

Caroline Roemer, a new member of the council, praised efforts to give school officials more flexibility on school discipline.

"I see it as an opportunity to trust those school leaders more," said Roemer, who is executive director of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools.

Roemer said some educators in New Orleans object to zero tolerance for marijuana violations.

"They would prefer not to put students out for that," she said. "They are saying you are handcuffing them."

State law spells out penalties for some school offenses, and suspension is mandatory in some cases.

The council also endorsed moving some school discipline rules to BESE, which would then spell out regulations with input from advisory council members.

Another option that surfaced would be to be to change current discipline penalties from "shall" to "may" in many cases to give school officials more discretion.

"We cannot throw kids away when they make mistakes," Coco said.

No votes were taken on specific changes.

Coco, who works for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the panel will consider multiple drafts before settling on recommendations to BESE and the state Department of Education.

Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell.