One in 8 Del. students suspended in 2015-16

DOVER — Nearly 17,300 students in Delaware public schools were suspended or expelled in the 2015-2016 school year, about 12.7 percent of the state’s 136,000 students.

In other words, one in eight pupils received serious discipline, ranging from a one-day in-school suspension to expulsion.

Of course, not all schools are created equal. At Polytech High School, for instance, 55 pupils, or 4.6 percent of the student body, were suspended. Meanwhile, Milford High School reported suspending 305 students — 30.3 percent of its population.

Those punishments tend to be concentrated in high schools.

Offenses fall into one of three categories: school crimes, Department of Education offenses and school offenses.

“The school crimes are crimes that must by law be reported to the department as well as the police agency with jurisdiction,” Department of Education spokeswoman Alison May said in an email. “These are usually severe offenses such as violent felonies or weapons offenses.

“The next set are DOE reportable offenses that are required to report to the department but NOT a mandatory report to the local police agency. These include offenses such as bullying or disorderly conduct that usually do not result in an arrest.

“The last category is school level offenses that are defined by each district — our codes are sort of the catch all for issues that we see the districts use for lower level offenses such as dress code violations or tardy issues.”

In the 2015-2016 school year, there were 10,091 incidents judged Department of Education offenses and 713 separate school crimes. Nearly 87 percent of crimes were drug-related, weapon-related or third-degree assault. Fifty-one crimes were categorized as violent felonies.

A majority of school offenses were either offensive touching or fighting, which saw 3,800 and 2,900 incidents, respectively.

The 2015-2016 school year saw the death of Amy Joyner-Francis, a 16-year-old Howard High School of Technology student, killed as a result of a fight.
Recently, an instance of a school offense stirred up some controversy around Dover when a video of a fight went public.

Taken on a cell phone at Caesar Rodney High School on Oct. 3, the video shows one student punching and kicking another pupil, who is sitting on the ground covering his head with his arms.

Diane Eastburn, an advocate for parents of special-needs children, including the family of the apparent victim, said the boy was “atrociously beaten” and questioned why the other student was charged with offensive touching and not something more serious.

The Delaware Code defines offensive touching as an unclassified misdemeanor that occurs when someone “intentionally touches another person either with a member of his or her body or with any instrument, knowing that the person is thereby likely to cause offense or alarm to such other person.”

Third-degree assault occurs when an individual “intentionally or recklessly causes physical injury to another person” or harms them “with criminal negligence.”

An unclassified misdemeanor carries potential penalties of up to 30 days of jail time, a $575 fine, restitution or “other conditions as the court deems appropriate.”

Third-degree assault is a Class-A misdemeanor that may include a maximum of one year in jail, a fine of up to $2,300, restitution or “other conditions as the court deems appropriate.”

A Delaware State Police spokesman in an email said only that the charge was “determined at the time of the incident.”

The Department of Justice has the ability to upgrade or add charges but has not yet reviewed the case.

Mike Matthews, president of the Delaware State Education Association, said policies for breaking up fights vary from district to district.

“Teachers should step in when the lives of other students are at risk, that’s understood, but teachers also just have to be … they’re very aware that disciplinary action could be taken against them if their stepping in causes harm or injury to a student,” he said.

While Mr. Matthews has broken up a few fights, he noted he is a big guy. Not every teacher is physically able to separate two brawling students.

According to Mr. Matthews, an increasing number of students are coming to schools “with trauma.”

“Our members have concerns that discipline is becoming a larger issue in some of our schools that are seeing high numbers of poverty,” he said.

Statewide, about 37 percent of students are defined as members of low-income households. In Capital, Laurel and Seaford school districts, a majority of students are low-income.

Students who live in poverty are less likely to have stable family situations, permanent housing and guaranteed meals.

That, Mr. Matthews said, often makes them more likely to act out.

In the 2015-2016 school year, 123 students were expelled. Thirty-two of them came from Christina School District.

Red Clay Consolidated School District, which had more students than any of the state’s 19 districts, reported only three expulsions, as well as fewer suspensions than Christina.

Indian River and Smyrna school districts both expelled 24 students, although Indian River had far more crimes, Department of Education offenses and suspensions.

Five of the seven districts located at least partially in Kent County suspended 12 percent or more of their students in 2015-2016. The exceptions are Polytech (4.6 percent) and Caesar Rodney (8.8 percent).

School employees are required to report certain incidents, such as violent felonies, to police and the involved students’ parents.

In the case of an expulsion, the student is barred from enrolling in any other district or charter school until the full period of expulsion has expired. Pupils kicked out of school are in some cases eligible for alternative schools.

Those expelled for crimes such as rape, drug trafficking or arson, however, are not allowed to attend alternative institutions.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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