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Thursday, May 23, 2024

NHCS under federal sanction for discriminatory discipline practices, principals weigh in on causes

NHCS is the only North Carolina school district that is sanctioned for its significant disproportionality in suspension of Black students with disabilities. (Port City Daily/Brenna Flanagan)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A five-year sanction on New Hanover County Schools for its disproportionate suspension rate for Black students with disabilities is still in effect, according to a student discipline presentation at Tuesday’s school board meeting. 

NHCS Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Julie Varnam reported Black students with disabilities are suspended 4.5 times more than their white peers; sanctions under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act kick in when a district exceeds three times more than another demographic. 

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Varnam also revealed Black students overall are suspended six times more than their white peers. She noted NHCS is the only North Carolina school district, 115 total, that is sanctioned for its significant disproportionality, which it has been under for five years. 

As a result, 15% of funding the district receives must be put toward addressing the inequity instead of going to use for exceptional children needs as a whole. 

According to district spokesperson Josh Smith, the 15% of funds — $4.5 million over the last five years — goes toward programs and initiatives such as “Social Emotional Learning (SEL), positive behavior supports, behavior interventions, and evidence-based strategies for classroom management.”

Data from the 2020-2022 school year shows 16% of office discipline referrals result in out-of-school suspensions, with middle schoolers making up almost half, according to Varnam. 

A breakdown of offenses that result in suspensions shows fighting is the number one cause at 29%. Aggressive behavior makes up almost 15%. The rest of the offenses — 56% — are what the federal Office of Civil Rights refers to as subjective discipline that lends itself to more bias. These offenses include disrespect, defiance, inappropriate behavior, and disruption.

During her presentation, Varnam provided nine principal identifications of root causes for the inequity. The principals’ top reasons include lack of resources to address student trauma and mental health, a lack of de-escalation in adult responses, implicit or cultural bias, and “old school” supervision attitudes. The principals’ suggestions include adopting trauma-informed teaching, counselor lessons in social-emotional learning, de-escalation modeling, and focusing on restorative justice practices rather than punitive. 

“The data is the data and I think acknowledging it is a good first step,” board member Stephanie Walker said during the meeting. 

She also noted the district should address contributors to the root causes.

“Poverty is the biggest driver of trauma, and until we address a lot of these root causes, I don’t see how we’re going to affect real change,” she said. 

Barnhart wanted the board to hold a work session dedicated to addressing the problem. She also sought to correct the narrative that teachers and school employees were not utilizing the resources and techniques available now. 

In discussions with teachers, she reported they were using de-escalation, pulling in additional teachers when needed and using other techniques, yet still struggled with curbing class disruptions of “violently aggressive” students. Barnhart also spoke against the “virtue signaling equity” that results in students not being held accountable for their actions. 

“The trickle-down effect [of that] in some of our staff and schools is you are not allowed to punish if you have a child of color because that’s what equitable treatment is,” Barnhart said. 

Varnam clarified there has been no directive not to suspend students. 

Denise Yannone, president of the New Hanover County Special Education Parent Teacher Association, issued a statement on the disproportionality, stating the NHC-SEPTA “strongly supports” NHCA initiatives like social emotional learning, positive behavior intervention strategies and trauma-informed training. 

“NHC-SEPTA requests more detailed information from NHC Schools to demonstrate to parents, students, and community members that there are immediate concrete and specific plans in place in our schools to reduce suspensions across the school district. Much like a student’s IEP [Individualized Education Program] contains measurable short and long term goals, the methods and materials to be used, and data regarding progress toward meeting those goals and objectives, it is vitally important that the information regarding the crucial goal of reducing suspensions for our Black male Exceptional Students and all our disabled and non-disabled students be available to everyone.” 

Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at 

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