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Santa Rosa City Schools is moving toward modifying a policy that for decades has banned students who have been suspended from school from participating in co-curricular activities.

The current so-called "25-day" rule requires a student who receives a school suspension be barred from participating in extra- and co-curricular activities such as sports, drama and music productions, and potentially graduation ceremonies if the infraction comes within a 25-day window of the event. The penalty is 20 days for middle school students.

Sonoma County's largest school district is eyeing a change in policy that would alter the after-school penalty for students because many officials said the ban represents a double punishment.

A committee of teachers, coaches, parents, principals and community members is expected to convene to come up with a policy that will be followed by all district high schools and middle schools. The new policy is slated to be in place for the 2014-15 school year and students will not be able to participate in co-curricular activities without a signed contract on file.

But just what the policy will look like remains to be seen.

"I was delighted that this is not a decision that is made by a few coaches or a few athletic directors, but all stakeholders are participating in the decision," said trustee Larry Haenel. "You will get a policy that is reflective of the thoughts of those who are closely involved with students at the site."

Board President Bill Carle called the 25-day ban "outdated" and aligned with the concept of zero tolerance, which the district has been moving away from in favor of restorative justice programs. Newer policies require students to make amends for their misdeeds.

"It really was a double punishment and I don't think frankly it was a deterrent to stupid mistakes that teenagers have a tendency to do," he said.

But Carle countered any suggestion that district officials will be letting students off the hook for transgressions.

"We haven't eliminated suspensions. Safety issues, mandatory issues? Nobody is letting up with respect to those," he said.

When finalized, the policy change will be distributed in student and district handbooks, school site newsletters and at orientation and assemblies, according to the district.

But concerns have been raised whether students will be treated equitably across the district.

"For me, there seems to be a lot of ambiguity and I would like to avoid that," said trustee Frank Pugh.

"My thought is that the old 25-day rule that we used to have is pretty clear, pretty understandable; people know what it is," he said. "What is being proposed now is to remove the certainty of the discipline and create a somewhat ambiguous process and treat every student differently throughout the district."

Pugh questioned whether a star athlete or lead actor in the school play will receive the same punishment as a different student. Or whether a member of a team at one school will receive the same treatment as his peer at another campus.

"We need to ensure that bad things don't happen," he said. "I think the board has to meet a higher standard to ensure the public that these issues are indeed fairly handled."

The move to change the policy comes as the 16,400-student district is dramatically overhauling its discipline policies to try to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions that are meted out each year.

Prior to instituting a new discipline policy based on restorative justice practices on some campuses this year, the district suspended middle and high school students at a rate exceeded by only three other large districts in California.

Nearly three times as many Latinos were suspended than whites, even though the groups make up roughly equal portions of the student population in middle and high schools. African-American students, who represent just 3 percent of the secondary enrollment, represented 7 percent of the overall suspensions that year.

Piner Principal Sally Bimrose said students need to be held accountable but that the policy as it stands is "double jeopardy."

"I do want to revise it, I don't want to throw out the whole concept because I do believe we need to hold kids accountable for their behavior," she said.

The changed in policy is expected to come back before the board of trustees before being finalized.

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)