NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The meeting of the New Hanover County Schools policy committee on Tuesday was prompt, cutting key conversations short, yet one controversial policy will still move to board consideration next month.
Among the list of policies to review this week was 4300 on student behavior. The policy calls for the following:
- Expected standards of student behavior
- A system that ensures the equitable treatment of all students
- Principles to be followed in managing student behavior
- Consequences for prohibited behavior
- Required procedures for addressing misbehavior
The draft revisions remove the second bullet point and the word “equitable” from the policy that steers student discipline. Removing the language could affect federal funding.
The exclusion of this one sentence harkens back to a convoluted conversation the board of education took up in June. It tried to nail down a working definition of “equity,” though the conservative members — Chair Pete Wildeboer, Vice-Chair Pat Bradford, Melissa Mason and Josie Barnhart — were critical of efforts specifically designed for promoting equity, such as the district’s chief equity officer position and its equity, diversity and inclusion committee.
The Republican majority was also wary of incorporating the word “equity” into student discipline.
“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 at a meeting in May.
She echoed the same sentiments in Tuesday’s policy committee meeting, stating it should not be “on the shoulders of staff to have a demographic look a certain way when it comes to discipline.”
NHCS has been under federal sanction for five years due to the disproportionate rate of suspensions for Black students. In May, it was revealed that Black students are suspended six times more than their white peers, and Black disabled students are suspended 4.5 times more. Federal sanctions kick in when disproportionality for any demographic reaches 3:1, and as a result, districts must direct 15% of federal funding toward addressing the problem.
The data showed that 56% of offenses resulting in suspension are what the federal Office of Civil Rights refers to as subjective discipline and lends itself to more bias. These offenses include disrespect, defiance, inappropriate behavior and disruption.
Superintendent Charles Foust noted that effective and compassionate discipline takes into account the events and environment leading up to a child’s transgression, such as a fight between parents at home or a death in the family. Foust also said providing an equitable education is part of federal guidelines and removing the phrase “equity” could substantially change how the policy is enacted.
The superintendent asked Assistant Superintendent of Support Services Julie Varnam to take over the explanation, but the discussion was interrupted by a point of order from Bradford. From a Zoom call, Bradford asked the committee to move on due to time constraints.
Port City Daily reached out to the district Wednesday for more details on how removing equitable language from the policy could diverge from federal guidance. District spokesperson Russell Clark responded that both Foust and Varnam were out of town and could not answer questions.
On Wednesday, PCD asked Barnhart if she thought the district’s discipline practices are flawed and how the district should measure success in this area if not by their outcomes.
“I do think we have to look at output, but looking at output allows the district to re-evaluate input, which is how the process should work,” Barnhart wrote back in an email.
What she wants the district to evaluate is: Did the school do what they should be doing? If so, that means staff’s inputs, or the work they are putting in, need to be reworked to ensure staff has the right tools for effective discipline.
In her eyes, Barnhart said, evaluating staff’s efforts does not involve equity; the term can only apply to the results of their efforts, and therefore speaks to why it should not be in the policy.
“I support creating an equitable opportunity for academic success, but what I challenge is the idea that a specific outcome (such as an out-of-school suspension) is never justified in a school setting,” Barnhart said.
Since the 2022-2023 school year, the district has prohibited the suspension of kids under eight years old students for offenses not involving drugs, weapons or violence. As for everyone else, Varnam reported in May there has been no directive not to suspend students.
Barnhart told PCD the next conversation on the policy will involve discussions on the range of consequences as it pertains to subjective behavior and degrees of fighting. Also discussed will be ideas for addressing repeat offenders, which was brought up during a recent work session.
Ideas include a “key adult” that students could turn to, working relationships with counselors, parent or guardian support, and a re-acclimation process for students who have been suspended or disciplinarily reassigned to ensure a success transition.
The policy will be retained in committee for further discussion.
Invocations, teachings about race and sex
The board also discussed several other disputed policies.
A newly drafted policy tailored as a synthesis of guidelines already encoded in the NHCS rulebook will move forward for board review.
Policy committee member Stephanie Kraybill took issue with section Z, which prohibits discussion of controversial beliefs on race, sex and the U.S. government in the classroom. Kraybill called out the section for being a direct copy of language from an unpassed, Republican-sponsored bill in the North Carolina General Assembly. Kraybill also questioned if the district wanted to delineate between compelling a student to believe the prohibited statements versus just teaching about them.
For example, the section would prohibit educators from teaching students “all Americans are not created equal and are not endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is unclear if this would prohibit, say, critiques on the U.S. Constitution made by historical figures.
No one is owning up to the origins of section Z. In the September policy meeting, NHCS Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Christopher Barnes said the section’s language was submitted to him by NHCS’s legal counsel Jonathon Vogel, which the attorney refuted during the committee’s discussion.
The conversation on this policy was again cut short due to time constraints. It passed the policy committee in a 2-1 vote, Kraybill dissenting.
Updates were also made to policy 3620 regarding extracurricular activities and student organizations in response to the passage of the Fairness in Women’s Sports Act in August. The law bars students assigned the male sex at birth from competing on female sports teams.
Varnam explained the district will have to use a student’s birth certificate to verify which team they can join. However, she noted students born in states allowing minors to change the sex on their birth certificate (North Carolina allows it with parent permission) could change their sex from the one assigned at birth. She noted there will be no way to verify compliance — i.e. physical examinations — if this is the case and noted several NHCS students fell into this category.
Kraybill also wanted to add the newly passed invocation policy to the committee’s agenda. In September, the board removed proposed language that would allow board members to pray at the meetings in the event a designated speaker was not present to do so. The board then passed it.
On Tuesday, Kraybill pointed out that the policy now has no clear direction if a speaker no-shows, meaning board members would still be able to take the helm.
Kraybill’s attempt to add the policy to the agenda received no second from Barnhart or Bradford and was dropped.