Black student suspension rates in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, Orange schools ‘heartbreaking’

Orange County Schools targets intolerance

The Orange County Schools took a step toward addressing racial disparities in achievement and discipline Monday night, unanimously passing an equity policy.
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The Orange County Schools took a step toward addressing racial disparities in achievement and discipline Monday night, unanimously passing an equity policy.

Orange County leaders asked school officials Tuesday night what they are doing to address racial disparities in student discipline 

The Orange County Schools (OCS) board adopt an equity policy last month to deal particularly with racial disparities in achievement and discipline. 

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) already had an equity plan in place, but the district still showed up in a recent News & Observer article based on a Southern Coalition for Social Justice study as having black students being 13.9 times more likely than white students to receive a short-term suspension, as Commissioner Mark Dorosin pointed out.

“I know it’s been an issue for a long time, and what kind of progress is being made if any?” Dorosin asked the school representatives.

The CHCCS rate is significantly higher than the statewide rate, which shows black students 4.3 times more likely to receive a short-term suspension. In Durham Public Schools the rate is 9.7 more likely, and in Wake County schools the rate is 6.8.

“It’s a vital issue that has to be dealt with,” said Commissioner Renee Price. Speaking of black students she has heard from, she said, “It’s really kind of heartbreaking. They’re saying the same things that we were saying 40 or 50 years ago.”

CHCCS board member Amy Fowler pointed out that office referrals for black students went down last year, but that referrals for all students went down, leaving a racial disparity.

Restorative practices

“Obviously we are working on that, and are not surprised by our data,” CHCCS Superintendent Pamela Baldwin said of the suspension disparity.

Baldwin said she expects to see improvements as the use of restorative practices becomes more common throughout the district. Restorative practices focus on repairing harm and and restoring relationships rather than just on punishment.

Baldwin also pointed to work to address mental health needs as having a positive effect on racial disparity, as well as training teachers and principals to “be proactive and having relationships with students’ needs prior to some incident happening.”

OCS Superintendent Todd Wirt also mentioned the positive effects of restorative practices, saying the district has trained nearly 65 percent of employees in restorative practices and plans to train bus drivers and cafeteria workers in restorative practices as well. The district also is working on a new code of conduct that it hopes to share with the commissioners in April, Wirt said.

Wirt also referenced the district’s newly approved equity policy.

“In the first paragraph of our policy,” he said, “it acknowledges that we have intolerance, inequity and disparities in our system. That’s not an indictment that we have a staff full of racists in our school system. I don’t meet those people when I’m in our schools. What we do have are practices and policies and things in place that continue to be implemented year after year after year in an unintentional way that have led to disparities.”

Charter school challenges

Dorosin also asked the school representatives about the challenge of charter schools for OCS.

Supporters of traditional public schools say that charter schools, which are funded as public schools but don’t get the same oversight, are draining badly needed resources from the traditional public schools. Of more than 8,000 OCS students projected for next school year, nearly 850 will attend charters.

Charters are a lesser issue for CHCCS, where out of more than 12,000 students, only 115 attend charters.

OCS has lost 29 staff positions over the last three years because of loss of enrollment, Wirt said. “It certainly has an impact on our system,” he said. Commissioner

Earl McKee asked if there would be any advantage to have a charter school representative come before the board sometime. Several commissioners said that was a good idea, but Wirt cautioned that he would not be in favor of such a representative asking for more money being allocated to charter schools.

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