Under the glare of an ongoing federal civil rights investigation, Wake County school leaders are looking at further ways to reduce the number of suspensions, particularly among African-American students.
Federal civil rights investigators are asking the Wake school system to revise the way some student offenses are written in policy to make them less subjective. In addition, Wake school board members discussed Tuesday making additional changes to reduce the possibility of students being suspended for what are considered less serious infractions.
“We really do want to reduce suspensions and that as much as possible we want to use interventions in school and not out-of-school interventions,” Kathryn Chontos, interim assistant superintendent for student support services, said in an interview. “Not that students don’t have consequences for their behavior. As needed there are consequences.”
Since 2010, the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights has been investigating whether Wake’s discipline policies and practices discriminate against African-American students. The complaint was filed by the state NAACP and other groups.
Like many other districts, the percentage of suspensions given to black students exceeds their representation in the overall enrollment. In the 2016-17 school year, African-American students accounted for 60 percent of Wake’s suspensions while only representing 23.5 percent of the total enrollment.
Wake has made multiple changes that have resulted in fewer out-of-school suspensions and more use of in-school alternatives when students misbehave. The number of out-of-school suspensions in Wake dropped 25 percent between the 2012-13 and 2016-17 school years, even as enrollment went up 9 percent.
But on Tuesday, Chontos told school board members that the Office of Civil Rights has asked the district to change how it defines non-compliance, disrespect and disruptive behavior. Currently, all three offenses have short descriptions that don’t provide much detail.
“What OCR is seeking is to make sure that the language in our policy has the greatest clarity and our board wants that as well,” Chontos said. “They want to make it clear exactly what we’re saying.”
For instance, the current wording about the disrespect offense only says that “students shall exhibit appropriate respect towards school personnel and volunteers.” Federal officials want examples of disrespect to be listed in policy, such as “ ridiculing, cursing at, or aggressively or angrily shouting at an employee or volunteer. “
Jonathan Blumberg, the school board’s attorney, said that the suggested changes will reduce the risk of “implicit bias” in how suspensions are issued.
In addition to reviewing those wording changes Tuesday, members of the school board’s policy committee asked Chontos to revise the wording for Level 1 infractions to make it less likely they’ll lead to out-of-school suspensions. Level 1 offenses include non-compliance, disrespect, skipping class, gambling and inappropriate language.
Under current board policy, Level I offenses aren’t supposed to result in out-of-school suspensions unless there’s a persistent pattern of violations. But some board members said that wording doesn’t go far enough to encourage school employees to seek alternatives to kicking students out of school.
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“We’ve got to get out of the mindset that all discipline is punishment for violations,” said school board vice chairman Jim Martin, chairman of the policy committee.
Martin said he also wants to make the policy more focused on the positive behaviors that are expected among Wake’s 160,000 students as opposed to primarily being a list of what they’re not expected to do.
School board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler said it will take “relearning behaviors” to move school employees away from using suspensions and more toward interventions.
Chontos will bring back the changes for further review at the policy committee meeting on Aug. 28.