Panel eyes policy of Durham schools

Bias panel eyes policy of schools

Staff WriterNovember 24, 2004 

Since February, when the district announced a surge in suspensions over the previous year, Durham Public Schools has faced criticism and questions from county commissioners, the mayor and a host of community advocates and angry parents.

Last week, the city's Human Relations Commission became the latest to weigh in, holding a special meeting Nov. 17 with board members after more than 20 parents approached the commission with concerns. Parents complained that they weren't notified in writing when their children were suspended, criticized the appeal process and said they couldn't reach administrators. These same complaints have been aired by parents at school board meetings.

The Human Relations The commission serves as a liaison and mediator for Durham residents attempting to resolve problems with various government agencies, community organizations or citizens, and often deals with discrimination complaints.

"Over a period of a year or so, we've had parents coming to us needing to find some other avenue," said Larry Holt, the commission's chairman. "We asked t Since February, when the district announced a surge in suspensions over the previous year, Durham Public Schools has faced criticism and questions from county commissioners, the mayor and a host of community advocates and angry parents. hem if they've talked to the school board. They said, 'Yes.' It says, OK, well, if the school board knows about it, it raises concerns as to what is going on here."

Short-term suspensions, in which students are sent home for up to 10 days, spiked 52 percent last fall. Since then, the district initiated several programs aimed at reducing suspensions. The following semester, the district cut the number of students kicked out short-term by half.

But Holt said the number of parents seeking help led the commission to step in.

'Something is amiss'

"Something is amiss here," he said.

With the district moving to block scheduling next fall, lowering suspensions is crucial, Holt said, because missing three days of class will be like missing six as the rigorous high school schedule packs a year's worth of work into one semester.

In a Sept. 24 letter inviting board members to the meeting, the commission compiled a list of 10 recommendations based on concerns expressed by parents.

Some of the recommendations called on the board to enforce its policies. Those include notifying parents in writing of misbehavior and timely notification of parents' right to appeal suspensions. Others would require policy changes, such as allowing five days to appeal suspensions instead of three; preventing teachers from the same school as the suspended student from hearing the appeal; moving the hearing off school property; and not allowing the same lawyer to represent both the principals and the Board of Education.

The final recommendation asked the district to "allow and encourage parents and students to address school officials to discuss issues concerning the student." Holt said such procedures would seem to be common sense, and he was surprised to get so many complaints about it.

Board Vice Chairwoman Regina George-Bowden and members Jackie Wagstaff, Steve Schewel and Heidi Carter attended the meeting. Holt said member Minnie Forte said she could not make it, and he did not hear anything from Chairwoman Gail Heath and member Steve Martin.

Carter called the meeting "useful," saying board members need to hear their constituents' concerns. She said she's open to further discussion of the recommendations.

"I do want to make sure that ... our procedures match our policies," she said. "For the most part, I feel like they do. That doesn't mean in every single case we're doing the best job."

Bringing up the meeting at last week's work session, George-Bowden said she would like to see the board review some of its suspension policies.

Both she and Carter said it bothered them that parents felt they had to go to the city for help.

"The city is concerned," said George-Bowden. "We need to be more customer friendly."

Staff writer Nikole Hannah-Jones can be reached at 956-2433 or nikole.hannahjones@newsobserver.com.

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