Wake Ed

Wake County hopes policy changes will reduce student suspensions

Sam Ollison, center, 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, N.C.
Sam Ollison, center, 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, N.C. jhknight@newsobserver.com

The Wake County school board unanimously gave final approval Tuesday to changes in the Code of Student Conduct that grant principals more flexibility to reduce out-of-school suspensions.

School officials hope the policy changes, which will go into effect for the 2016-17 school year, will reduce both the number of out-of-school student suspensions and the number of days that students miss school. The policy changes will be coupled with training this summer that school leaders say will stress that principals should consider the negative impact out-of-school suspensions have on the ability of students to learn.

“We want our principals to really think about the time that kids are missing out on school,” said Brenda Elliott, Wake’s assistant superintendent for student support, in an interview after the changes were initially approved May 17. “If there is a way to address the behavior and keep the kids in school safe with lesser days, we want the principals to have the flexibility in that.”

But youth justice advocates urged the school board Tuesday to postpone the vote on the Code of Student Conduct changes and approval of changes to the due process policy.

Before the vote, school board member Christine Kushner told the audience that the policy revision wouldn’t lead to any reduction of due-process rights for students.

But Peggy Nicholson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, told the board it’s unclear whether due-process rights would remain unchanged.

Nicholson said she’s worried that the changes could lead Wake down a path where students facing long-term suspensions are just reassigned to alternative programs as a way to keep suspension numbers down.

“If it is the intent of this board to have no changes to due process, I think a statement to that effect in the policy would be appreciated by those in the community who advocate for students and parents to make sure that Wake County Public Schools doesn’t go down the same road that some other large districts have gone down,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson also told the board she’s concerned about Wake using the online-based SCORE program as the default program for students recommended for long-term suspensions. Nicholson said there are questions whether SCORE meets state requirements of what should be provided in an alternative education program.

But despite Nicholson’s request, the board approved the changes to the student conduct and due-process policies.

One change in the Code of Student Conduct spells 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 prior wording left principals feeling they could only issue suspensions of as long as five days for Level II offenses or request long-term suspensions of 11 or more days. Elliott said 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.

Elliott has said principals are expected to treat a student who accidentally brings a pocketknife differently from a student who angrily brings the weapon.

“Zero tolerance doesn’t work,” Elliott said. “Exclusionary policies aren’t really effective.”

But Elliott has 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.

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.

Terry Stoops reported Monday on the John Locke Foundation’s Locker Room blog that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights had emailed Wake’s teachers about participating in a questionnaire about the district’s discipline practices.

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.

Although Nicholson was unsuccessful in persuading the school board to delay the votes, she did credit Wake for the changes it’s made in recent years.

“Wake County has made a lot of progress in its discipline and we hope you’ll be thoughtful and deliberate about these changes as well,” Nicholson said before the board vote.