What’s impact of new state student discipline law on Brockton schools?

On Nov. 8, 2022, changes to Massachusetts’ student discipline law officially took effect — suddenly limiting the ability of schools across the state to suspend students for their behavior.

Now, before a student can be suspended outside of school, administrators must exhaust all “alternative remedies” and keep them inside the school building, according to the new law.

“For Brockton, my biggest concern is, we don’t have enough people in the hallways to begin with,” said Brockton School Committee Vice Chair Kathleen Ehlers at a Dec. 19 meeting.

“Ninety-eight percent of our students are fantastic, and then we have a very small group of students that just are not, and they’re problematic and we’ve been struggling since Nov. 8 on how to discipline those students and how to actually handle them without disrupting the other students,” she said.

Safety and security concerns at Brockton High School

Lately Brockton High School has struggled with safety and security concerns, while teachers have described instances of violence in hallways and students verbally abusing staff. An employee shortage at BPS has made it difficult for teachers to keep up with the number of students causing issues.

“What’s been overwhelming has been literally the sheer number of students in the hallways. Trying to make sure we have a building that’s safe for all of our students,” said BHS Interim Principal José Duarte at a school committee meeting in October, shortly after his arrival.

BHS parents have been calling as early as July for problematic students to be removed from the building, but the new state discipline law — Sec. 84 C. 37H – 3/4 — may have the school’s hands tied.

“My concern is that we’re actually, truly doing this process as designed,” Ehlers said.

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What is the new student discipline law?

The new law sets restrictions on how principals and superintendents can respond to incidents that occur within the school buildings, with the aim to keep students in school so they can continue learning.

The law states:

“Any principal, headmaster, superintendent or person acting as a decision-maker at a student meeting or hearing, when deciding the consequences for the student, shall consider ways to re-engage the student in the learning process; and shall not suspend or expel a student until alternative remedies have been employed and their use and results documented, following and in direct response to a specific incident or incidents, unless specific reasons are documented as to why such alternative remedies are unsuitable or counter-productive, and in cases where the student’s continued presence in school would pose a specific, documentable concern about the infliction of serious bodily injury or other serious harm upon another person while in school.”

School officials have to document each alternative remedy they’ve used before they can expel or suspend a student, unless they can prove that the student’s presence in the building poses a harm to others.

What’s the alternative to suspending kids?

According to the law, alternative remedies may include, but shall not be limited to:

  • mediation
  • conflict resolution
  • restorative justice
  • collaborative problem solving

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Why was the law created?

The statute provides guidelines for how administrators deal with issues that occur in school that don’t involve drugs, weapons or assault on staff (there are separate laws for those incidents).

“[It] was changed in November of 2022 as part of a broader piece of legislation in the state to address the mental health needs of children,” said Paige Tobin, an attorney for Murphy Lamere and Murphy, the law firm that represents Brockton Public Schools.

“Students were being suspended out of school more than they should be,” she said.

According to Tobin, the statute required schools to move the focus away from discipline and out of school suspension and toward re-engaging the student back into a classroom environment.

“Particularly because of the aftermath of COVID, it was important to try to keep students in school as much as possible,” Tobin said.

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Is the law working?

According to data from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), out of school suspensions have plummeted compared to the previous school year, while in school suspensions — when alternative remedies are employed — increased. The total number of students disciplined throughout the year dropped, as well.

“In Brockton, so far, it’s working,” Tobin said.

2021-2022 2022-2023
Disciplined students 1010 599
Out-of-school suspension 24.2% 13.5%
In-school suspension 3.3% 5.5%
Data from DESE shows the amount of disciplined students in Brockton who received in-school or out-of-school suspension by school year. Data presented at a Dec. 19 School Committee meeting.

“Slowly districts are getting there,” Tobin said.

According to Tobin, DESE data for Brockton reflects a trend in school districts across the state.

“When we talk about restorative, that takes years to happen,” said School Committee member Cynthia Rivas-Mendes. “That data, it just doesn’t say the whole story.”

Similar problems in Middleboro

Brockton isn’t the only school district struggling to keep up with the new statute.

In May, a group of about 50 students at Nichols Middle School in Middleboro broke open bathroom pipes, broke lunch table benches and threw food in the cafeteria. Then-Acting Principal Heather Tucker called it “whack-a-mole.”

“This is more than just students being students. This is targeted destruction of the building,” Tucker said at a Middleboro School Committee meeting on May 18. “I’m calling it whack-a-mole right now because there are so many different things that are popping up across the school.”

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At the same school where student Liam Morrison wore a T-shirt reading “there are only two genders” that sparked national controversy, some students at the middle school are bullied and called racial slurs, with little retribution.

School staff struggled to handle the chaos.

“Suspension and expulsion, though available, is becoming less available,” said Middleboro Superintendent Carolyn Lyons. “[The] law has changed and impacted how districts respond to student behavior.”

Tobin said that some of the restorative justice remedies that the districts are encouraged to use require very specific training for staff that can be costly for some schools.

“We should not be taking away the tool of an out of school suspension without replacing it with really robust alternative remedies. And that’s been a work in progress throughout the state,” she said.


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