NEW HANOVER COUNTY – The New Hanover County Schools Board of Education will review more than 55 policies and consider about 45 of them for approval Tuesday night during its regular monthly meeting.
NHCS is now half a year into the estimated 18-month process of updating its entire nine-section board policy manual. The text establishes procedures and rules for the schools to abide by and provides direction, management and control of the board’s legal functions, according to the manual.
A policy committee, including three board representatives, meets for approximately three hours each month to discuss around 20 to 25 of the policies. Superintendent Charles Foust, the board attorney Deborah Stagner, Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services Julie Varnam and McKenna Osborn of the N.C. School Board Association all join in on the discussion as well.
After the committee discusses and agrees on policies — sometimes drafting changes ranging from minor strikes to the addition of full paragraphs — it votes to move the policies forward to the school board for review. Bundles of policies go up for “first reading” at one meeting, to allow the public and board members to review them, and then “second reading” at a following board meeting, during which the school board takes a vote to adopt the proposed policies.
Last month at the Jan. 5 meeting, board members Stephanie Walker and Judy Justice expressed concern about the speed at which the policies were going up for approval and whether the public was fully aware of the policies being adopted.
“I personally would like to slow it down a little bit,” Walker said. “There’s some things that I have questions about that we’re supposed to pass that I’m not comfortable passing yet.”
After the meeting, Walker was informed by board chair Stefanie Adams she’d been removed from the policy committee. Board member Pete Wildeboer filled her place, alongside Stephanie Kraybill and Nelson Beaulieu.
Tuesday night the committee is presenting more than 15 policies to the board for first reading. Another bundle of policies, more than 45, will be considered for approval.
Some documents are available to view on the board’s agenda ahead of Tuesday’s vote. However, the ones being presented to the board for the first time will not be posted until Tuesday, the day of the meeting, according to a NHCS spokesperson.
Below are a few of the policies being considered, with links to videos of when the policy committee most recently discussed each item.
Suspensions and other disciplines
Policy 4300 serves as a framework for other policies that address specific offenses, such as gang activity, trespassing and theft, drugs and alcohol, weapons and more. The proposed policy also lists 18 disciplinary options, in addition to short-term suspensions, for dealing with minor violations, from short timeouts to exclusion from graduation.
A subgroup of the NHCS NAACP Education Committee is asking the school board to remove the use of suspensions in elementary schools as a punishment from the policy.
George Vlasits, NHCS-NAACP education committee chair, sent a letter to the school board Jan. 10 asking it to consider alternative, non-punitive methods for correcting behavior.
“At the elementary level, there’s really no cause for using suspensions, and we know from all the research that suspensions don’t work,” Vlasits told Port City Daily. “As a matter of fact, they have negative consequences.”
The NHC-NAACP Parents’ Council believes disciplining kids through suspensions stirs feelings of resentment, anxiety and other negative emotions related to schools while also causing children to fall behind academically. In the coming month, the council plans to circulate a petition to end suspensions in the younger grade levels. It will present its signatures to the school board at its March 2 meeting.
According to a Southern Coalition racial equity report using 2018-19 data, Black students are nearly eight times more likely to receive a short-term suspension than white students in NHCS.
The council is recommending the school system focus on collaborative discussions where adults listen to the children’s concerns and work with them to come up with solutions rather than handing down suspensions.
When the policy committee most recently discussed the list of potential disciplinary consequences during its Jan. 12 meeting, Kraybill asked that restorative justice be included in the policy.
Restorative justice is a method of addressing misbehavior that has gained traction in recent years, especially in school settings. It focuses on mediation and agreement, often with teachers engaging in dialogue and discussing problems with offenders and victims in group circles, rather than assigning consequences or punishment.
“With all the equity discussions we have going on, that might help us stay focused with our eye on the prize of how we manage or approach some of our issues,” Kraybill said in the Jan. 12 meeting.
Staff allowed to confiscate, search phones
A policy focused on personal technology would allow students to bring their devices to school. But school employees would also be allowed to confiscate and search those devices when deemed necessary.
According to the drafted policy, a school official could search through the student’s device, including their text messages and photos, if they had “reason to believe” it would provide evidence that the student was in violation of a law, board policy, school rule or code of student conduct.
“The scope of such searches must be reasonably related to the objectives of the search and not excessively intrusive in light of the nature of the suspected infraction,” according to the proposed policy.
Unless law enforcement got involved, the school staff would give back the device at the end of the school day, the policy states.
Religion in schools and exemptions
Policy 3510 allows parents to petition to exempt their child from participation in certain programs on the basis of religion.
Parents seeking a religious exemption would have to submit a request to the superintendent following the policy’s guidelines. Those standards include that the request is in writing and that it specifies what violates their religious beliefs and why. In the request, parents may also suggest alternate activities or studies.
“These are always very fraught situations where you have someone claiming a religious exemption and I do think that it gives some good guidelines,” Stagner said of the policy during the Nov. 10 committee meeting. “You have to be careful about not questioning the sincerity of someone’s religious belief.”
Another policy, code No. 3515, includes a newly drafted section allowing teachers to discuss religion in a “neutral and objective manner.” However, it clarifies staff may not promote or disparage a particular religion or lack thereof.
“Because of religion’s integral role in the cultural and historical development of the world, it is an important subject to be examined and studied,” the policy states.
Policy code: 4316
Discussed by the committee: Jan. 12
Status: Up for first reading
NHCS began discussing its dress code policy nearly two years ago in an effort to make it gender-neutral and consider loosening some restrictions. A committee was formed to review the code and completed its work in January 2020.
The end result is a dress code that enforces solid sole shoes, doesn’t allow for sunglasses inside or any hats, and requires that upper clothing covers the chest and has straps while lower clothing reaches the mid-thigh, among other rules.
One of the proposed changes in the policy would prevent schools from using “dress down days” for “economic gain.” Schools in the past have received approval to host a hat day or crazy sock day, during which students could make a small donation to participate.
Vice chair Beaulieu said the committee believed that was unfair to disadvantaged students and was concerned schools would implement stricter dress codes so PTAs could take advantage of potential fundraising opportunities.
Schools may enact their own dress codes, consistent with the districtwide policy, with approval from the school improvement team and board.
No right to have a parent present
Policy code: 4351
Discussed by the committee: Jan. 12
Status: Up for first reading
The proposed short-term suspension policy includes new language indicating students would not have the right to have a parent or representative present when a principal or “designee” is seeking information from them about potential charges or accusations.
Kraybill questioned this policy during the Jan. 12 committee meeting.
“How come a student can’t call their parent and say, ‘Mom, I’m in serious trouble, can you come?’” she asked.
“The short-term suspension hearing is a hearing in the loosest possible definition,” Beaulieu responded. “It is a: ‘This has happened. Explain what your side of the story is.’ And then the administrator simply makes a determination.”
Varnam and Stagner clarified further that the hearing is an initial conversation between a student and an administrator about an incident or accusation. Although students would not have the right to have the parent present, they still may be able to reach out to them, if requested.
“If a kid says, ‘Look, I can’t talk to you without my parent. I really can’t,’ then as an administrator, you negotiate through that and say, ‘OK, well, I really need to know what happened. If you want to get you parent on the phone, that’s fine,'” Varnam said. “This is just saying they don’t have the right to have their parent present at that conversation.”
More policies to come
The next policy committee meeting is Tuesday, Feb. 9, at 9 a.m. The public may watch live on NHCS’s YouTube.
The Tuesday board meeting is at 5:30 p.m at the Board of Education Center. Attendance is limited to 25 people; however, the public may watch this meeting on NHCS’ Youtube, as well.
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