Wake County tries new effort to reduce out-of-school suspensions

Sam Ollison listens during a forum where Wake County parents, students and community members shared concerns with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights Tuesday, April 12, 2016 in Raleigh.
Sam Ollison listens during a forum where Wake County parents, students and community members shared concerns with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights Tuesday, April 12, 2016 in Raleigh.

Wake County school leaders say they hope changes to the discipline policy will reduce both the number of out-of-school student suspensions and the number of days that students miss school.

The Wake County school board unanimously gave initial approval last week to changes in the Code of Student Conduct that will give principals more flexibility to reduce out-of-school suspensions. The changes will be coupled with training this summer that school leaders say will stress to principals to consider the impact suspensions will have on the ability of students to learn when they’re out of school.

“We want to make sure principals aren’t keeping kids out for the days longer than necessary to make sure the inappropriate behavior is addressed and the school is safe,” said Brenda Elliott, Wake’s assistant superintendent for student support. “We don’t want kids to be excluded from school any longer than necessary.”

But Jennifer Story, an attorney for Legal Aid of North Carolina, was more skeptical as she focused on changes to the due process policy that were also tentatively approved last week.

Story pointed to new wording in the due process policy that says that students will be assigned to an alternative placement following a recommendation of a long-term suspension. Students who complete SCORE, an online-based alternative program, are not recorded by Wake as having had a long-term suspension. Story said SCORE doesn’t provide students with what they need educationally.

“The proposed changes to the WCPSS due process policies have the potential to ultimately reduce, not the actual number of students being suspended, but instead more narrowly the district’s responsibility to publicly report those students as being long-term suspended,” Story said in a statement.

All of the changes come as Wake is the subject of an ongoing federal civil-rights investigation into whether the district’s discipline policies and practices discriminate against African-American students on the basis of race.

In 2010, Wake overhauled its discipline policy to divide offenses into five groups, or levels, that set expectations on how many days students should be suspended for each type of infraction.

Since the 2010-11 school year, Wake’s total suspensions and short-term suspensions of 10 days or less have both dropped 34 percent and long-term suspensions of 11 or more days have declined 44 percent.

Instead of out-of-school suspensions, schools are being encouraged more to use alternatives such as in-school suspensions.

School board member Jim Martin, who chairs the policy committee that vetted the latest revisions, said it’s part of an ongoing effort to build Wake’s ability to deal with disciplinary actions in school.

“We want to minimize infractions and maximize education,” Martin said. “That’s not done effectively outside out of school.”

One change, Elliott said, is to spell out that principals can issue out-of-school suspensions of six to 10 days for Level II offenses. Examples of Level II offenses include cheating, disturbing class, fighting, theft, bullying and sexual harassment.

Elliott said the current wording left principals feeling they could only issue suspensions of as long as five days for Level II offenses or request long-term suspensions. She said that most Level II offenses are still expected to result in suspensions of up to five days.

Wake is also making it easier for principals to forgo long-term suspensions for Level III offenses, which include possession of drugs or alcohol, possession of weapons that are not firearms, participating in gang-related activities and making bomb threats.

The new wording says principals can on their own impose a short-term suspension – or no suspension at all – if they find mitigating factors for the Level III offense.

Martin said he expects the change will lead to greater use of alternative justice programs, such as several Wake schools’ work with Campbell University Law School’s Juvenile Justice Program to mediate discipline disputes. What needs to be done, Martin said, is to reduce recidivism and address the behavioral problems that lead to the infractions.

“This is not a call to put disruptive kids in the classroom more,” Martin said. “But this does say that more work needs to be done.”

Elliott said principals are expected to treat a student who accidentally brings a pocketknife differently from a student who angrily brings the weapon. Elliott said zero tolerance – which mandates strict application of punishments – doesn’t work and that exclusionary practices that keep students out of school are rarely effective.

“Since there are only two zero-tolerance offenses in the state of North Carolina (bringing a firearm or destructive device such as a bomb to school), we don’t want to necessarily box principals in that they have to have long-term suspensions here,” Elliott said. “This gives them the flexibility to reduce the length of suspensions.”

But Elliott said that some Level III offense such as assault on school personnel or assault on a student that causes serious injury are still expected to lead to long-term suspensions.

The school board could give final approval of the policy revisions on June 7.

Both Elliott and Martin said it would be wrong to say the changes would lead to unsafe schools.

“Research says that increasing lengths of suspension isn’t related to school safety at all,” Elliott said. “There are other things that schools do to help feel students feel safe. The key thing is to provide a nurturing classroom.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui