Midtown Raleigh News

Wake schools may make it harder to suspend students

Wake County students could receive “three strikes” next year before being suspended for what school leaders consider less serious offenses, such as skipping class or failing to follow a teacher’s orders.

Proposed revisions to the Code of Student Conduct would eliminate out-of-school suspensions for certain nonviolent offenses – unless a student commits the same violation three times during a semester. Principals would be encouraged to use alternatives such as in-school suspension to keep these students in school and learning.

School board Chairman Keith Sutton said he expects school board members to discuss the proposal in December and possibly place it into effect in the 2014-15 school year.

“It will significantly reduce the number of suspensions and impact the culture as administrators deal with discipline at the building level,” Sutton said Wednesday. “It will be a positive change.”

The potential changes in Wake are also part of a national trend, as school systems look for alternatives to out-of-school suspensions for infractions that aren’t considered major.

Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based education think tank, said he’s concerned that the focus on reducing suspensions could come at the expense of students who want to learn in an environment free from disruptions.

“If a kid is disrupting the learning of other students, maybe we need to suspend them,” Petrilli said. “What we need to have is flexibility. We need to allow adults to exercise their judgment.”

Wake school administrators say they have been reviewing ways to reduce the number of suspensions since 2009. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into a complaint filed by the state NAACP that Wake disproportionately suspended minority students.

In 2011, Wake overhauled the Code of Student Conduct to divide offenses into five levels, with Level I being considered “less serious.” Level I offenses include:

• Noncompliance – not following the directions of school personnel or volunteers authorized to give directions.

• Disrespect – not exhibiting appropriate respect toward school personnel and volunteers.

• School/class attendance – being tardy to class, skipping class/school, leaving campus without permission.

• Inappropriate language – cursing or using vulgar, profane or obscene language.

• Electronic devices – Using or displaying devices such as cellphones, music players and electronic games during the school day.

The policy says that Level I violations should generally result in in-school interventions instead of out-of-school suspensions. Those alternatives include peer mediation, in-school suspension, conflict resolution, restitution, community service and loss of privileges such as playing on athletic teams or attending school dances.

Sutton said these alternatives would probably deal more effectively with lower-level offenses than sending the student home for two days.

Suspension as a last resort

Current policy also says that “out of school suspension should be used as a last resort” for skipping class or being tardy.

A report in August from Advocates for Children’s Services found that Wake issued 3,517 short-term suspensions for Level I offenses in the 2011-12 school year. The Level I offense with the most suspensions – 1,222 – was for school attendance.

“The district continues to suspend students for minor misbehavior that could be better dealt with through alternative means of behavior management,” according to the report from Advocates for Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina.

Wake County activists have repeatedly urged the school board to stop issuing out-of-school suspensions for Level I violations.

Sutton drew applause at the June 4 board meeting for saying members had begun preliminary discussion of such a change.

But instead of stopping all such suspensions, the proposed policy would allow a principal to give an out-of-school suspension for a Level I violation only if the student committed the same violation three times in a semester or refused to participate in one of the alternative interventions.

Wake’s proposal mirrors changes that the New York City public schools made last year after complaints from civil liberties groups about the numbers of students suspended.

Sutton said Wake’s proposal strikes a good balance between providing safe campuses and properly dealing with the Level I violations. He stressed the nonviolent nature of these offenses.

School board member Jim Martin said simply suspending students for Level I offenses amounts to an exercise in failure. It’s harder but more worthwhile, Martin said, to use alternatives that get students to recognize the consequences of their actions.

Qasimya Wideman, a member of NC HEAT, a youth group that has called for the moratorium, said the proposed changes are a step in the right direction.

“It’s important that we stop suspending kids for stupid stuff like violating the dress code or skipping class,” said Wideman, 18, a senior at Cary High School. “We should all start demanding higher standards before we remove kids from the education environment.”

Petrilli, of the Fordham Institute, said he’s concerned that schools may be over-reacting, as some did following school shootings that led to zero-tolerance policies. Those rules mandated suspensions without exceptions.

“We need to be careful not to let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction,” he said. “I understand the arguments for why we should be reducing suspensions. But the last thing we need to do is to undermine the authority of teachers.”