Mother opposes FSD1′s new ‘zero-tolerance’ policy for school fights after daughter expelled

Published: Dec. 10, 2021 at 8:21 PM EST
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FLORENCE, S.C. (WMBF) - Get in a fight at school, and possibly face immediate expulsion.

That’s the new controversial policy at Florence One Schools that caused heated moments during Thursday night’s school board meeting. Many families have come out to say they’re against the new policy.

Jeanie Coe was one of those parents, calling it “unfair.” Coe said her daughter was recently expelled from an FSD1 high school following an incident that occurred on Nov. 12.

She said another student approached her daughter inside the school and started the fight. Coe said her child was defending herself, and that there’s video of the incident.

Coe then received a letter from the district saying her teenager was being expelled for the remainder of the school year.

The document stated the district’s decision was based on information received during a Nov. 18 administrative hearing. School leaders said they determined Coe’s daughter violated the code of conduct violation for fighting.

Coe disagrees with the decision and said her daughter should not be facing consequences for trying to defend herself on her first offense.

In the letter, the district recommended that Coe consider enrolling her daughter in a free virtual school program offered in the state.

It specifically lists South Carolina Virtual Charter School, Cyber Academy of South Carolina, Odyssey Online Learning, South Carolina Connections Academy, the South Carolina Preparatory Academy and the South Carolina Whitmore School.

She says she’s now facing challenges with getting her child enrolled in one of the state’s virtual school programs.

“It’s stressful because she feels like why am I being punished for defending myself, and my education is being taken away from me,” Coe said. “She’s just been sitting idle, waiting for me to do extensive paperwork trying to get her into one of the virtual programs. I’m in the process of doing that, but they require so much documentation, I feel like I’m enrolling a student in school for the very first time. With one of the virtual programs, they told me classes don’t even start until January 18. So even if they were to enroll her in that school, she has to sit idle until Jan. 18.”

Coe said she’s deeply concerned about the district now using a zero-tolerance policy for fighting. She said the measure opens the door to punish students who didn’t start a fight.

Based on what her family is experiencing now, Coe feels the consequences of the policy will be harmful to students.

FSD1 Superintendent Dr. Richard O’Malley first proposed the zero-tolerance approach to the board of trustees during a meeting last month. It amended the student code of conduct for the “Levels of Intervention and Disciplinary Response.”

The policy provides school leaders the option to immediately expel a student involved in a physical fight on the school campuses.

O’Malley said the changes could help curb violence happening on the school grounds. During Thursday’s board meeting, O’Malley said there has been a 62% drop in school fights since the district first started discussing the proposed changes.

The superintendent spoke with WMBF News further about that data on Friday.

“Actually two schools, Wilson High School and Williams Middle School had zero fights,” O’Malley said. “Wilson High School had the most fights of all high schools and they went to zero. Whether you believe it works or it doesn’t, just this is enough fact that something will change by implementing this policy.”

Although that information brings some families comfort, others feel differently.

Some families and members of the community have voiced similar concerns to Coe, stating they feel a zero-tolerance approach will punish students who don’t start fights.

O’Malley insists that the administrators still have the discretion to apply punishments as needed.

“There’s some verbiage in there that hasn’t changed that allows some discretion,” O’Malley said. “If you have two kindergartners that are fighting over a crayon, we’re not expelling them. There is some language that gives some discretion for those types of things, kids that are defending themselves. There’s very clear language in there that the administrator has the ability to have some discretion based upon the situation.”

Coe says based on her experience, that type of discretion was not shown in her daughter’s case.

She’s also concerned being expelled will impact her daughter’s stress levels as it pertains to school work and also her ability to graduate with her class.

Coe said she feels this type of policy was introduced and passed without enough time for some families to provide input to the board on this issue.

“Communication is the key to a whole lot of situations,” she said. “If there’s any type of policy that’s going to be changed, it needs to be announced prior to any board meeting. Not just announced at a board meeting. Every parent is not able to attend board meetings to find out what’s going on in school districts. Some are working or they have smaller children at home and they can’t get anyone to watch them so they can attend. I myself was in that predicament.”

The zero-tolerance policy passed in a 6-3 vote Thursday night after a nearly four-hour meeting.

The board voted to make additional policy changes during the meeting. If a student verbally threatens any staff members, the consequences could result in that student being automatically sent to the alternative school.

Any student who physically touches or harms a staff member can now face an immediate expulsion recommendation as well.

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