Committee tables proposal to offer community service as discipline alternative

Posted: Jul. 22, 2014 7:43 pm Updated: Aug. 5, 2014 9:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

The Quincy School District is shelving a proposal to give students the option of performing community service as an alternative to suspension or expulsion -- for now.

Members of the School Board's Discipline Committee were told Monday that letting students reduce the length of their suspensions or expulsions by doing community service work would probably be legal in Illinois. However, implementation could cause headaches.

David Penn, an attorney for the district, said the district could open itself to possible liability if community service work was mandated. The issue becomes even more complex if the community service was conducted off campus versus on campus, or during school hours compared with non-school hours.

"Right now we think there's a legal basis for mandatory community service, but it's far more risky than optional community service," Penn told the committee.

He also said the district could open itself to discrimination complaints if the option to perform community service was offered to some students but not others, depending on the circumstances involved.

"When you start varying and doing things out of the norm, it creates risk," Penn said. "The slippery slope is vast and steep, in my opinion, when you choose it without general guidelines."

School Board member Sayeed Ali admitted, "I don't think that I'm a huge fan of the idea of community service."

He said students who get suspended for knowingly breaking serious rules need to learn their actions have ramifications.

"We probably want that student removed from the classroom," he said.

Ali added that "I don't know if I'd really be in favor" of having a community service option as "part of our playbook."

Dan Sparrow, principal of Quincy Junior High School, said he also would have reservations about offering community service to students who are suspended for short periods for serious rule infractions.

"There's a big difference between suspension and expulsion," he said.

He said short-term, out-of-school suspensions often "meet the needs of the school for an immediate effect," and students need to learn there can be "logical consequences" by being forced to stay home and miss classes. This may include facing an extended day, extended year or possibly even retention if the student falls too far behind.

If the school district wanted to work out a plan to offer students on long-term expulsion a chance to work off some of their days by doing community service work, Sparrow said, "I don't have a problem with that -- if it's an expulsion. But if it's a suspension, there's an immediate need for that kid to be outside of school."

Superintendent Steve Cobb also expressed doubts about the practicality of offering community service as an option, including how it would be enforced and who would monitor whether a student completes it.

Board member Scott Stone, who chairs the Discipline Committee, said he would recommend the issue be tabled indefinitely.

"While I think a lot of us think community service would be good in some cases, it does provide a lot of liability as well as a lot of risk if we're not implementing it in a consistent manner," he said.