A Message from Superintendent Pero: Understanding the disciplinary process and finding a balance

In a time when rapid advances in technology have constructed highways of real-time public communication, the mistakes of young people and opinions about how they should be managed can quickly become a topic of heated debate in the court of public opinion, often times to the detriment of the students involved.

When children are publically scrutinized, it has a deep and lasting effect on their emotional and psychological well-being. It can create an environment where students, rightly or wrongly accused, become uncomfortable and ashamed to take part in their community. As children are developing their sense of self and testing boundaries, it is important to remember that right is still right and wrong is still wrong. It is also important to recognize that mistakes will happen, and now more than ever, these mistakes are amplified by virtue of being in the public eye where the inclination is to quickly draw conclusions and pass judgment before all the facts are available.

There are times during the discipline process when the conduct/incident is so severe that a Superintendent's Hearing is necessary. This does not happen often, however, I would like to describe this process. 

Consequences and the role of a Superintendent’s Hearing

When a student’s behavior violates the District’s Code of Conduct, there are administrative procedures that must be followed when determining disciplinary action. Depending on the nature of the violation, those steps can include informal conferences with parents to discuss discipline such as detentions, in-school suspensions, short-term out of school suspensions and/or restorative practices. In extreme cases, we conduct a Superintendent’s Hearing to determine the length of long-term, out of school suspensions. 

The law dictates that a school district can suspend a student for the maximum of five days, until a hearing determines whether further discipline is recommended (longer periods of suspension), or a parent/guardian waives the right to that hearing. At the same time, a separate criminal investigation may be launched by law enforcement, depending on the offense.

The Superintendent’s Hearing is conducted like a court of law. All parties are sworn in to tell the truth, rights are shared, and rules are read. Each party may be represented by legal counsel and have the opportunity to state their case, offer evidence, present witnesses, and cross-examine the opposing party’s witnesses. As in a court of law, there must be some direct evidence of guilt of the charges and the student is entitled to a presumption of innocence unless the contrary is proved. Based on findings of fact, the Impartial Hearing Officer then makes recommendations to the Superintendent as to the appropriate measure of discipline. In the event that the guilty party disagrees with the extended disciplinary decision, an appeal can be made to the board of education and then to the commissioner of education.     

The goal of the District is to ensure public safety, hold students accountable, and whenever possible, to work with them in order to correct their wrongdoings and redirect their behaviors to set them on a path where they can learn from their mistakes. Engaging students in restorative practices helps ensure accountability for behavior so that the offending behavior is not repeated and the student has the tools needed to return to school successfully.

While transparency is paramount in times of crisis, there are legal limitations school districts have to abide by when handling student issues. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), for example, prohibits schools from sharing any personally identifiable student information, which includes disciplinary records. The District is legally, therefore, unable to share many specifics of any given case, and as in a legal court of law, there is the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise.

Our students spend a significant amount of their childhood in the care of Pittsford Schools, and the District works each day to ensure that every student has the resources and supports they need to learn and grow. Our job is to care for our students and provide them with a safe place where they can fully experience the journey of learning and growing. Along this path, students will make mistakes – and we expect that. We also expect them to learn from their mistakes and develop responsible behaviors so they treat each other with dignity and respect while growing into confident, compassionate individuals who are ready for the world beyond PCSD. The support of the community is critical on this precarious path to adulthood. We work collaboratively to fulfill our mission to “inspire and prepare our students to be their best, do their best and make a difference in the lives of others.”

The emotional and physical well-being of each and every student is our number one priority, and I thank every parent, teacher, staff member and community member who contributes to their well-being and plays a pivotal role in the development of their character.