Interesting editorial here out of the Wilson Times in Wilson, North Carolina.

Sean Bulson, the departing superintendent for Wilson County Schools, clearly shook up his community when he changed the district’s discipline policies. This editorialist claims it was for the best, but feelings in the community are clearly mixed.

The schoolhouse rumor mill was wrong about Sean Bulson.

Wilson County Schools’ outgoing superintendent, who departs at month’s end after five years, worked to reduce student suspensions by empowering principals to make local decisions for their schools and discouraging severe punishments for petty dress code infractions.

For this, he earned a reputation as a coddler of troublemakers who was soft on school discipline. That label is undeserved.

We’ve talked a lot about reducing suspensions on this blog. Reducing the number of suspensions is often met with praise in the media, but again we point out that reducing suspensions in and of itself is meaningless. Reducing suspensions is only positive if (#1) student learning increases as a result of students spending more time in class (#2) the behaviors that previously resulted in suspensions are reduced, thus allowing students (both the offender and others) to learn more. (Unless the behaviors that previously resulted in suspensions did not truly merit those suspensions; in that case #2 does not apply.)

The fact that Bulson earned a reputation as a coddler of troublemakers suggests a few possibilities: (1) he was unable to convince community stakeholders of the merits of his approach and thus those stakeholders dismissed him (2) he reduced suspensions without actually reducing unproductive behaviors or increasing learning. (It could mean something entirely different, but those two things come to mind.)

Bulson acknowledges suspension and expulsion are appropriate penalties for serious matters, but advised his principals to use discretion instead of relying on zero-tolerance policies — those well-intentioned lines in the sand that often produce absurd and disastrous results.

Touted as a tough, no-nonsense stance, zero-tolerance rules forbid administrators from taking individual circumstances into account. They always sound better in the abstract than when they’re applied in the real world.

Under loosely written zero-tolerance policies, American students have been suspended for bringing butter knives to the cafeteria and having nail clippers in their backpacks.

Their offense? Possession of a weapon on school grounds. Don’t you feel safer?

Bulson’s approach hardly sounds revolutionary; in fact, it’s quite consistent with policy trends around the country.

Our outgoing superintendent also opposed the doling out of three-day suspensions for students caught violating the dress code for the first time. That practice was clearly overkill, the equivalent of swatting a fly with an anvil.

He cited two examples: Un-tucked shirts and “unnatural” hair color. Neither interferes with schools’ mission of teaching young adults how to learn and think for themselves.

Dress codes should be narrowly tailored to ensure that students’ attire is safe and does not disrupt the educational environment. That is their only legitimate purpose. Government officials — which public-school administrators are — should not be arbiters of style and taste. Rules must allow for students to express themselves within reasonable limits. 

We aren’t keen on turning teachers and principals into fashion police. Every minute of class time spent fretting over fabric is a minute educators aren’t teaching and students aren’t learning.

Let me get this straight: this guy inherited a district in which kids were being suspended for THREE DAYS for a first-time dress code violation, changed that policy, and this was an unpopular move? This sounds like an interesting town …

(By the way, I would quibble with the author’s last line: minutes spent on enforcing school norms and policies don’t detract from student learning. If those norms and policies are good, spending time making sure students adhere to them in a meaningful way will actually increase student learning in the long run. But I digress…)

Bulson favors progressive discipline, with punishments starting out small and increasing with the frequency and severity of the offense. That sounds pretty sensible to us.

For drugs, weapons and violence, suspension and expulsion are usually the correct response. For most lesser offenses, detention or in-school suspension is the reasonable route.

The window of the superintendent’s office looks out over the Wilson County Jail’s backdoor. While Bulson has occupied that office, the specter of the school-to-prison pipeline has loomed large.

Students expelled and given long-term suspensions have a tough time earning their high school diploma. Dropouts are often unable to find stable employment to provide for themselves. Some end up in the jail across from Wilson County Schools’ administrative building.

Bulson has been shrewd, not soft, when it comes to school discipline. He’s set an example of good leadership, delegating more authority to principals and de-emphasizing rigid rules short on sense and long on punishment.

There must be another side to the story here. All I see is a sensible leader implementing sensible policies. But I suppose it goes to show that the best policy in the world will fall flat if you can’t somehow win the hearts and minds of those in the community whom the policy affects.

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