When Elaine O’Neal served as a District Court Judge, she saw a lot of children coming into her courtroom, not with their parents, but as defendants.
“The best discipline for any child is a quality education,” the now Superior Court judge told the school board recently. “But as adults, we’ve gotten the discipline and the punishment wrong.”
After analyzing racial disparities in suspension rates — and the poorer educational outcomes for suspended students, the Durham Public Schools Board of Education is overhauling the student code of conduct for the first time in 10 years.
The policy was “all about what was wrong,” Superintendent Bert L’Homme said. “This is an attempt to say what you should be doing.”
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The revised student code of conduct better embodies the school district’s philosophy of rewarding positive behavior, and getting to the core of the negative, said Elizabeth Shearer, a former DPS principal and executive director of Student Support Services.
The school board is expected to vote on a final version of the policy at its regular meeting on Thursday, Feb. 25.
The 47-member task force of school officials, parents, juvenile justice experts, church leaders and mental health advocates has been working on revisions to the code for a year.
The major changes include disciplinary measures that are “graduated responses” — breaking suspensions into smaller ranges of days — and are “developmentally appropriate,” by grade level. For example, there is no out-of-school suspension for elementary school students.
Principals will still have flexibility on disciplinary actions, but suspensions will no longer be mandated for plagiarism, dress-code violations, minor disruptive behavior or possession of cell phones or tablets such as iPads.
Truancy has been grounds for out-of-school suspension. However, L’Homme said, “the whole notion of suspending a child for skipping school, I think that’s counterintuitive. It just seems wrong.
“Let’s say we suspend a kid for 10 days,” L’Homme went on. “He’s home stewing about it. No one is working with him. He’s no better than he went in.”
Programs such as Rebound, a short-term, community-based alternative, still provide education for high school students on suspension. “There is peer mediation and restorative justice,” L’Homme said. “That’s better than sitting at home.”
Children and teens who are repeatedly suspended from school are less likely to graduate. And dropouts are eight times more likely to go to jail than their peers who complete school, according to criminal justice statistics.
Let’s say we suspend a kid for 10 days. He’s home stewing about it. No one is working with him. He’s no better than he went in.
Superintendent Bert L’Homme
This problem dramatically affects African-American students, who are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
Even though about half of DPS 33,600 students are black, they make up more than three-quarters of short-term suspensions. In contrast, 19 percent of DPS students are white but they comprise only 4 percent of that type of suspension.
The ratio is similar for long-term suspensions.
“It’s not that kids of color are misbehaving more often,” said attorney Mark Trustin, who represents students who have been suspended from school. “The suspensions are not explained by more serious behavior. They are being treated more harshly because of their race.”
In the 2013-14 school year, there were 5,235 short-term suspensions — defined as those lasting one to 10 days — and 69 long-term suspensions. In total, 20,000 school days were lost in Durham Public Schools to suspensions, according to district data. There were no permanent expulsions.
More holistic view
Statewide, there has been a steady decrease in the number of short- and long-term suspensions since 2007. However, the numbers have varied more widely in Durham.
The task force looked to other districts both in North Carolina and out of state, that successfully lowered their suspension rates. One of the state’s largest public school systems, Charlotte-Mecklenburg reported just 11 long-term suspensions, as result of a more holistic view of discipline: school administrators, teachers, parents and children work with children not only on what they did, but why.
“So many people think the school is right when a child is suspended, that the kid deserved it,” said Trustin. “In my experience, schools do the most expedient thing to get rid of the problem. Teachers are overworked and underpaid. But suspension is too expedient.”
By setting clear expectations and supporting students with behavioral problems — and their families — DPS leaders hope a drop in the suspension rate will translate to a better education and greater opportunities for public school students.
“The policy will start out as words on a piece of paper,” said O’Neal. “But we have to bring life to these words. It requires a cultural shift. That probably will be harder for the adults than the children. This undertaking should move us to make sure our children stay in school, learn and become productive adults.”