Wake Ed

Concerns aired about reduction in Wake County student suspensions

Sanyu Gichie and Tavon Bridges (at table) share information and perspectives about school suspensions and arrests in the Wake County Public School System at a Wendell-Wake County NAACP chapter forum at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Wendell, N.C., on Monday, April 4, 2016.
Sanyu Gichie and Tavon Bridges (at table) share information and perspectives about school suspensions and arrests in the Wake County Public School System at a Wendell-Wake County NAACP chapter forum at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in Wendell, N.C., on Monday, April 4, 2016. mgoad@newsobserver.com

Fewer Wake County students are being suspended from school, but school board members say they also want to make sure the message isn’t being given that teachers have to leave disruptive students in their classroom.

School administrators presented last Monday the results of a pilot discipline program that produced large drops in suspensions and days out of school for African-American students at four middle schools.

During the ensuing discussion at the student achievement committee meeting, two board members said they’re anecdotally hearing about teachers around the district being told not to suspend students. Multiple board members said reductions in suspensions need to be coupled with improvement in learning.

“We’re all expressing the same concern that we don’t just want to see numbers change,” said school board member Jim Martin. “We want to see lives changed. That’s got to be life both for the students and the teachers.”

Wake is the subject of an ongoing federal civil rights investigation into whether whether the district’s discipline policies and practices discriminate against African-American students on the basis of race. Activists have charged that Wake has perpetuated a school-to-prison pipeline for minority students.

Wake has made multiple changes over the past several years, leading to a 34 percent drop in short-term suspensions and a 44 percent reduction in long-term suspensions since 2010.

One new effort has been the Wake County middle school discipline project.

Rodney Trice, Wake’s assistant superintendent for equity affairs, said they focused on middle schools because 62 percent of all of Wake’s short-term suspensions in the 2014-15 school year were in grades six through nine. Additionally, 51 percent of all of Wake’s short-term suspensions that school year came from just 10 high schools and 10 middle schools.

Four middle schools – Daniels, Fuquay-Varina, Ligon and Wendell – took part in the pilot in the 2015-16 school year. East Millbrook was initially part of the program but didn’t complete the training after the school saw a change in its principal.

The five goals for the pilot schools were:

▪ Reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions;

▪ Reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions for African-American students;

▪ Reduce the number of lost instructional days;

▪ Reduce the number of lost instructional days for African--American students;

▪ Reduce the disparities of suspensions between African-American students and white students.

Trice said that the staff at the four schools received training, part of which revolved around changing their mindsets and attitudes. For instance, one module had participants consider questions such as whether African-American and Latino students are punished more severely for similar or less serious behaviors than their peers.

Brenda Elliott, assistant superintendent for student support services, said pilot schools also got additional resources. For instance, she said Ligon Middle hired a person to work with students who are struggling with behavioral issues that have led to them being suspended.

A year later, Daniels, Fuquay-Varina, Ligon and Wendell middle schools reported a combined 28.17 percent reduction in the number of lost days of instruction from short-term suspensions for African-American students. That meant African-American students experienced 604 fewer lost days from instruction in 2015-16 than in 2014-15.

“You can see just the work with those four schools had a significant impact on us gaining instructional days for our middle school students,” Elliott said.

Additionally, the four schools saw a combined 32.96 percent reduction in the number of short-term suspensions issued to African-American students.

School board members soon began asking though what the drop in suspensions meant for learning at the four schools.

School board member Bill Fletcher asked what staff was seeing in terms of changed student behaviors or attitudes relative to interest in being in school.

School board Chairman Tom Benton said the drop in suspensions and time lost was encouraging news. But Benton added that’s he’s increasingly hearing anecdotal information about principals telling teachers they can’t suspend students.

“I keep telling people time and again that this board is not in any way telling you or sending the message that you have to keep disruptive kids in the class,” Benton said. “The message that we’re trying to send is that we’ve got to provide training to teachers to defuse situations to keep kids more engaged in a positive way in classes.”

Benton added at last week’s committee meeting that when none of these steps work that they need to provide alternative settings for disruptive students. Wake has been buying and leasing sites to expand the number of students who can attend alternative school programs.

Benton said he wants to know if there’s a way to measure whether the discipline changes at the four schools are having an effect on student learning.

Martin said what his fellow board members have been saying underlines the problems he’s been hearing.

“I anecdotally hear the same thing that a lot of teachers are feeling like they have less support from their administration and being told a lot more ‘you keep disruptive kids in your classroom. If there’s a problem, it’s your problem,’” Martin said. “That actually impacts learning for the whole classroom.”

Martin said he wants to see more than just suspension numbers

“You know I’m opposed to suspension,” Martin said. “I’d like to get rid of all suspensions. I’d like to replace it with active intensive learning, the goal being to keep the kid in the classroom.

“But after a disciplinary event, after a disruptive event, rarely can that stay in the classroom. There needs to be an effective alternative setting.”

Martin said he’d like to see what the recidivism numbers are for the four schools.

“I don’t just want to know that numbers dropped,” Martin said. “I want to know that learning is taking place. I want to know if we’re actually making progress so we don’t have these cycles.”

Trice said that they’ve been talking with the principals about keeping kids in the classroom to reduce lost instructional days as opposed to saying reduce suspension numbers.

But Martin asked if the language that’s being heard by teachers is to keep students in the classroom even though they’re being disruptive.

“I want to minimize disruption, that is good.” Martin said. “I want to maximize learning, that is good. Keeping kids in the classroom is the indirect byproduct of all them. It is not the direct good.”

But Trice said he’s spent a lot of time with the faculties at the schools and not just the principals. He said he would have heard if there’s been pushback on the discipline project.

“If it was just about we can’t suspend kids we certainly would have heard about it,” Trice said. “These schools were highly engaged. The faculties were highly engaged so it would surprise me if you heard data from these schools with respect to the message being sent you can’t suspend students.”

Martin said he’s not heard specifically from the four pilot schools about suspension concerns.

Elliott told the committee that while suspensions are an appropriate consequence for some misbehaviors, they tried to help the four pilot schools look for alternative consequences for low level and non-violent misbehaviors.

“When it’s appropriate to suspend, you suspend,” Elliott said.

Board member Kevin Hill, chairman of the student achievement committee, said he hopes that the reduction in suspensions is accompanied by a reduction in incidents of misbehavior.