Education

Saving kids from pipeline to prison

School suspensions used more frequently in southern states

Duke law professor Jane Wettach discusses school suspensions
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Duke law professor Jane Wettach discusses school suspensions

There was good and bad news at a conference Saturday discussing the problems of school discipline.

North Carolina public schools have been imposing fewer suspensions over the past decade, according to Jane Wettach, a professor of education law at Duke Law School.

Students who are suspended are more likely to drop out of school and more likely to enter the juvenile justice system or adult criminal court, Wettach told an audience of about 100 teachers, students, lawyers and advocates at N.C. Central University School of Education.

But schools in North Carolina and other states in the southeastern United States resort to suspensions more often than other parts of the country.

“We have come to culturally accept that the proper way to discipline a child is to kick them out of school,” Wettach said. “These are real kids with real lives and suffer real consequences when they are kept out of school.”

During the 2003-04 school year, North Carolina public schools imposed more than 300,000 short-term suspensions. That fell to less than 200,000 in the 2013-14 school year. Long-term suspensions fell even more, from more than 5,000 in the 2007-08 school year to slight more than 1,000 in the 2013-14 school year.

There’s wide variation across the state. Halifax County schools have 103 suspensions per 100 students, while nearby Granville County has four suspensions for every 100 students.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, students of color are more than five times likely to be suspended than their white counterparts, according to District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch of Mecklenburg County.

If race is part of the problem, race must be part of solution

District Court Judge Elizabeth Trosch

“If race is part of the problem, race must be part of solution,” Trosch said.

Trosch pointed to an exhaustive study of all public school students in Texas, which found little disparity when serious violations such as weapons or sexual assault required mandatory suspensions. When the discipline was left to the discretion of school officials, black students were twice likely to be suspended as white students with identical characteristics such as income, family structure and parental education.

“This is about the individual encounter between the teacher or administrator and the student,” Trosch said.

The judge outlined some beginning steps to address the problem. Providing data to principals, parents and teachers. Train police officers who work in schools.

Thena Robinson-Mock, a lawyer, directs a program based in Washington, D.C. called Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track. She lauded youth groups across country working to improve schooling for minority students under slogans like “Education Not Incarceration” and “Push Back Against Push Out”.

She pointed to vague laws that can turn teenage behavior into a crime. South Carolina, for example, has a law that makes it a misdemeanor “to act in an obnoxious manner” on school grounds. A conviction can carry a fine up to $1,000 or 90 days in jail.

“I don’t know about you, but I was certainly obnoxious sometimes as a student,” Robinson-Mock said.

It’s the cradle-to-prison pipeline

Bert L’Homme, superintendent of Durham Public Schools

Bert L’Homme, the superintendent of Durham Public Schools, said the pipeline to prison starts early.

“It’s the cradle-to-prison pipeline,” L’Homme said. “They are well in the pipeline before they get to school, and we need to remove them from that pipeline once they get to school.”

L’Homme said Durham schools are working to reduce suspensions and, short of that, turning suspensions into a learning experience. L’Homme mentioned a common scenario, a student suspended ten days for getting into a fight.

“He goes home and stews for 10 days and comes back to school,” L’Homme said. “No one has talked to the student about the fight. ... How do we do something that ends up changing the behavior?”

Durham schools have begun sending suspended students to a program based on what’s known in criminal justice circles as restorative justice, which focuses on reconciliation rather than punishment.

“There are infractions that don’t merit out-of-school suspensions,” L’Homme said. “A student is caught for being truant, and we suspend him?”

Joseph Neff: 919-829-4516, @josephcneff

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