RALEIGH — The state's largest school district could take a softer line on student suspensions, easing back on zero tolerance policies that are among the strictest in North Carolina.
Members of opposite camps of a deeply divided Wake County school board have come together to call for a review of student discipline policies. They're questioning policies that require students to be suspended for the rest of the school year for a wide range of offenses, including drug possession and fights that cause serious injuries.
Wake issues long-term suspensions to more than 1,000 students each year, accounting for more than 20 percent of the statewide total. Wake also issues more than 20,000 short-term suspensions of 10 days or less each year.
"Some people say these kids just need to be suspended," said school board member Keith Sutton. "A lot of these kids are just lacking in discipline and guidance. There are ways we can partner with the community to help provide guidance and discipline."
Sutton's efforts have gotten a boost from the fall election of new school board members. While Sutton and the new board members disagree on issues such as busing for diversity and neighborhood schools, they say they've found common ground on wanting to do more to keep students in school.
"All we're doing is sending these students out for a year where they're getting into drugs and gangs," said new school board member JohnTedesco.
Questions about zero tolerance policies have grown nationally because of recent high-profile cases such as the suspension of a Delaware first-grader for bringing a camping utensil to school.
School districts around the nation have adopted zero tolerance policies, first against guns and then other offenses such as fighting, following incidents such as the 1999 Columbine High School shooting.
As of three years ago, 40 percent of North Carolina's 115 school districts had zero tolerance policies, according toWilliam Lassiter, manager of the N.C. Center for the Prevention of School Violence, which closed in October because of state budget cuts.
North Carolina has the fourth highest suspension rate in the country, according to the National Center of Education Statistics.
But Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based organization that provides school safety consulting services, cautioned against going to the other extreme and discouraging principals from disciplining students in order to reduce suspensions.
"The vast majority of school administrators in the country strive for firm, fair and consistent discipline applied with good common sense," Trump said.
With 140,000 students, Wake is the 18th largest school district in the nation.
Wake goes above what state law requires by saying long-term suspensions cover the entire school year. But the district also offers some students slapped with long-term suspensions the option of taking online courses. Students disciplined for the same offense in other districts may get shorter suspensions of as little as 11 days.
Jason Langberg, an attorney for Advocates for Children's Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, says Wake has created an "invidious" school-to-prison pipeline in which African American students are the ones most often cited for suspensions and delinquency complaints filed in court.
"We want them to see these kids as individuals, just like we do," said Langberg, whose group represents students at suspension hearings.
Marvin Connelly, Wake's assistant superintendent for student services, said Wake may appear to have so many long-term suspensions compared to the rest of the state because other school districts record them differently.
Connelly said a team of administrators and teachers is reviewing how to lower suspension rates as a way to improve academic performance and graduation rates. But he stressed that the primary focus remains on having safe and orderly schools.
"We won't have any recommendations that are at the expense of safety and order," Connelly said.
The school board may move faster than the administration on the zero tolerance issue.
Sutton, the school board member, wants a 60- to 90-day suspension of zero tolerance policies while a review takes place. He cited as a problem how 5,000 short-term suspensions are issued a year for non-compliance, in which students are disciplined for not following directions.
"The non-compliance suspensions are often not deserved and require teachers and administrators to go the extra mile to reach these children and understand their background," Sutton said.
Tedesco, a member of the new school board majority, said he wants a task force formed to review zero tolerance policies.
Both Tedesco and Sutton come at the issue from a background of working with troubled youngsters. Tedesco is a vice president with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Triangle, and Sutton is a legislative affairs program manager for the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
School board chairman Ron Margiotta said he expects the board will want to begin the review of the discipline policies soon.
"Discipline should be maintained in our schools, but it may be with different methods," Margiotta said.
In the meantime, Tedesco said, he and other new board members are looking for ways to keep students in school at suspension hearings. Students can appeal long-term suspensions to the school board, which can reduce the punishment.
Langberg is encouraged by the school board's willingness to review the issue.
"We're hoping it's not like the old board, which was a rubber stamp for the administrators," he said.
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