Michael Ghilani, West Jefferson Hills superintendent, told the Tribune-Review that in years past there’s been a “perception in the district” that “students are treated differently, depending on who they are,” so administrators created a discipline matrix to clarify expected behavior and consequences for violations.
Over the last seven months, school leaders developed clear definitions for more than 60 student infractions, along with a progressive set of punishments for repeat offenses, and published the matrix in this year’s school handbook, which was approved by board members in August.
“One of the things we heard from parents was, when things are reported, nothing is ever done about it,” Ghilani said.
“We want our discipline and how we treat students to be rooted in fairness and teaching. I think when there’s ambiguous expectations or there’s a perception that everyone is treated differently, it leads to an environment (where) there is not a lot of trust,” Ghilani said. “We wanted to firm that up by having a very open, transparent and clear code of conduct.”
Ghilani said punishments for misbehavior include both punitive and restorative elements, with a particular focus on rooting out bullying.
“There are a lot of offenses, like assault, like bullying, that have a restorative piece to it,” he said. “Restorative actions that actually look to heal and change the environment and culture do have a lasting impact on the student environment and culture and actually teach.”
Thomas Jefferson principal Pete Murphy stressed that all school leaders will use the matrix to ensure the message and response to student misbehavior is consistent, which makes the process easier for both students and staff. Parents are also required to sign off on the student handbook to ensure they’ve reviewed the document.
“We want kids to know where we stand,” he said. “We want to draw the line very clear for them.”
“I think the good news is that we’re all on the same page,” school board president Brian Fernandes added. “We’re all pushing towards this common goal, which is a transparent approach that parents will understand and students will understand what the expectations are and also what the ramifications are when the expectations are not met.”
The matrix also provides students with a sense of moral autonomy to make informed ethical decisions, based on clearly outlined consequences for specific behavior.
James Davison Hunter, founder of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, pointed out in “The Death of Character” that moral autonomy is important because “controlled behavior cannot be moral behavior, for it removes the element of discretion and judgement.”
Restorative practices included in the matrix provide another avenue for students to freely atone for their behavior and gain the moral autonomy to do the right thing, for the right reasons.
The West Jefferson Hills School District published a copy of the discipline matrix on its website, which can also servesas a reference for educators developing discipline policies in their schools.