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NC school district may stop suspensions for some infractions, because ‘it isn’t working’

Wake County schools settle civil rights complaint

Wake County school board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler talks on Nov. 20, 2018 about federal civil rights investigators agreeing to close a probe into the district's discipline policies. Wake made several changes that reduced student suspensions.
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Wake County school board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler talks on Nov. 20, 2018 about federal civil rights investigators agreeing to close a probe into the district's discipline policies. Wake made several changes that reduced student suspensions.

North Carolina’s largest school system may stop suspending students who commit infractions such as not following a teacher’s orders, showing disrespect to a teacher, cursing and cheating.

Wake County school administrators said Tuesday they anticipate presenting to a school board committee in January changes to the Code of Student Conduct that would limit principals to using in-school discipline for some lower-level offenses. Some school board members say the changes are needed to remove bias against minority students who are being overly suspended and to change the focus from punishment to encouraging students to behave positively.

“Discipline is a challenging issue for every school system in this country,” school board vice chairman Jim Martin said in an interview after Tuesday’s policy committee meeting. “Doing it the way we’ve always done it ‘ain’t working.’

“My goal at the end of the day is not to punish every kid that does something wrong. My goal at the end of the day is to have behavior that’s constructive.”

Calla Wright, president of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African American Children, said Wednesday that Wake students will benefit from changes that keep them in school. She’s been a critic of Wake’s discipline practices in the past but said the district is making progress.

“Our goal is to keep children in school where learning occurs so they can become productive citizens,” Wright said. “We know from statistics that children don’t learn when they’re suspended from school or in isolated environments.”

If adopted, it would mark the latest change by Wake in how it handles student discipline. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights recently reached a settlement agreement with Wake in part because of all the changes the district has made since the investigation began in 2010.

Wake has cut the number of short-term suspensions — which are for up to 10 days — by nearly half over the past decade even as it added 25,000 more students. Wake issued 22,707 short-term suspensions in the 2007-08 school year, compared to 11,863 in the 2016-17 school year.

As part of the changes, Wake in 2011 reclassified all student infractions into five tiers, with Level I considered to be the least severe. Level I offenses currently include disrespect, non-compliance, inappropriate language, inappropriate dress and skipping school.

“What OCR is agreeing with is we have a propensity to over-punish kids of color for the things we’re talking about as Level 1s,” school board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said in an interview.

Kathryn Chontos, interim assistant superintendent for student support services, told board members they’re also considering reclassifying the Level II offenses of integrity (which includes cheating and plagiarism) and violation of computer access to Level I.

Current policy says that Level I offenses can lead to a three-day suspension but should generally result in “in-school interventions.” The latest potential changes would go further by removing suspensions as an option.

Federal civil rights investigators are requesting Wake make some additional definition changes in its discipline policy to remove “implicit bias,” according to school officials who’ve been working with OCR. But OCR isn’t requiring Wake to remove the use of suspensions for Level I offenses.

“We are working further than OCR is requiring,” Martin said. “That’s partly why we got the settlement we did. We are head and shoulders above what OCR is expecting.”

Schools could use alternatives such as in-school suspension and peer mediation. Teachers are also being trained in a practice called “discipline with dignity,” where the idea is to set up a classroom focused on promoting positive behaviors as opposed to using the threat of punishment.

Martin said maintaining discipline is necessary, but for Level I offenses he said “redirecting” the student’s behavior is better than removing them from school.

“Suspension takes you out of a controlled environment and puts you wherever,” Martin said. “Suspensions by themselves are not effective at all.

“There are times when we need to remove from a situation but put into a controlled and directed situation. That’s not suspension. That’s discipline that might actually do something.”

The potential challenge for Wake school leaders is selling the change to principals, teachers, parents and the community.

“Principals have responded rather positively to this,” Chontos told board members on Tuesday. “There’s not been an outcry.”

Kristin Beller, president of Wake NCAE, the local chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, said there will be a difference of opinion among teachers about not being able to suspend students who have multiple Level I violations. She said teachers would want to know more about what alternatives would be used to suspensions.

Beller said educators are going through a tricky period as they learn how to implement new restorative justice practices that are aimed at teaching students positive behaviors. Beller, who is an elementary school teacher, said suspending students for Level I offenses doesn’t teach them to change their behavior.

“This is definitely a tricky period,” Beller said. “It’s hard in a county this large to develop consistent practices.”

Johnson-Hostler said she expects there will be a backlash against removing suspensions for Level I offenses.

“People have started to say we’re no longer going to do out-of-school suspensions so kids can act crazy now in a school,” Johnson-Hostler said. “That’s not what we’re saying.

“We are saying we’re holding the teachers and principals and adults in that building responsible for creating a respectful environment.”

Johnson-Hostler said that a mindset change is needed to put the focus on setting expectations of positive behavior as opposed to focusing on punishments. She said suspending students for things such as cursing isn’t helping to change the behavior.

“As a parent who’s raising a kid, to say don’t do it because I say it’s a rule doesn’t work,” Johnson-Hostler said. “This is a generation of kids who need to understand the why and I’m saying the why is because we need to teach them to create the environment that’s not chaotic, but it is an environment of nurturing respect and mutual responsibility to each other.

“It feels pie in the sky. It feels a little bit utopian, but I don’t think it is.”

Wake County is one of the largest school systems in the country, with more than 160,000 students. Martin said what Wake does could impact how other school systems handle student discipline.

“I believe that what we’re doing has the potential of being a national leader because again the purpose of what we’re dealing with is to redirect and develop effective behavior,” Martin said. “Our goal is not to punish.

“There are times punishment is necessary, but that’s not where you start. Our goal is to redirect, develop quality behavior.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.

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