Durham schools look to community for answers to suspensions

jalexander@newsobserver.comDecember 13, 2013 

  • What’s next

    The Durham Public Schools will hold the final community discussion on finding alternatives to suspensions and expulsions from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday at White Rock Baptist Church, 3400 Fayetteville St.

— Suspending a student from school will not help close the achievement gap, one parent said during a group discussion with Durham Public Schools officials last week.

It was the second of four discussions the district is holding to address the issue of suspensions and the high rates of suspensions of black students and students with disabilities.

“There should be ways of keeping kids in school,” said Donna Rewalt, a Durham community outreach coordinator and advocate for parents. “For some kids, sending them home may be a reward to them. So I think anything to keep them in school and learning – even if we have to provide alternative environments within the school setting, or additional discipline after school or at another time – is worth doing.”

“Because the more kids are in school, the more that they are learning and the better they are going to be long-term,” she added.

A lot of the discussion at Monday night’s meeting centered on parents not being involved in the decisions to suspend their child.

Several parents suggested increasing parent involvement, using already effective programs and bringing in mental health professionals for students with disabilities.

Charles Carter, an assistant principal at Riverside High School, said there needs to be more diversity among teachers.

“Teachers as a whole and the community need to all work together and accomplish the mission of educating all children,” Carter said. “We just need to make sure the kids see a reflection of themselves, whether it be Hispanic, black, white. A good population of different cultures.”

There is one more discussion Monday night at White Rock Baptist Church.

“I think the discussions are really good,” Superintendent Eric Becoats Jr. said. “The community is really coming up with good suggestions and there are definitely some things that I think we will be able to implement, and I think it’s great having the (school) board here hearing some of the discussions and the dialogue.”

Legal matters

The discussions come in wake of complaints of high suspension rates of black students and students with disabilities.

Advocates for Children’s Services filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in April, saying the Durham Public Schools suspends black and disabled students at disproportionate rates.

According to the complaint, 17 percent of disabled students were suspended in 2009-10, versus 8.4 percent of non-disabled students; 14.1 percent of black students were suspended versus 3.3 percent of white students.

The complaint remains under investigation.

In October, Legal Aid of North Carolina announced a settlement in a separate complaint filed with the state Department of Public Instruction involving students with disabilities.

Alternative programs

Durham Public Schools created a full-day program, the Short-term Suspension Intervention Program, to improve services for middle- and high-school students with disabilities who have been suspended.

The district also created Second Chance Academy last spring, where suspended middle school students can attend classes during their suspensions.

Deborah Pitman, assistant superintendent of student, family and community services, agreed students should be learning even while serving suspensions.

“The most important thing is we want students to graduate and we want every student to graduate,” Pitman said. “So when students start to struggle with behavior and a school determines that a suspension is the consequence, that is removing a child from learning and their educational program. Nobody wants that. It’s the balance between keeping order and safety in schools and still having progressive academic programs.”

Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1

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