NEW HANOVER COUNTY – A call on the New Hanover County Board of Education to end suspensions of younger students in favor of other behavioral correction techniques is gaining momentum.
With multiple local organizations now endorsing an NAACP-sponsored petition to bar the punishment in preschool through fifth grade, some board members are saying they are open to having a conversation on the use of suspensions at their March 2 meeting.
“It’s an ongoing discussion with the school system,” New Hanover County Schools chair Stefanie Adams said. “I’m a big supporter of restorative justice practices, and I agree that suspensions can put students on the wrong path.”
The chairperson did not explicitly state whether or not she would support an outright ban, though. The board has an obligation to carry on with updating numerous outdated policies, and for that reason, it could decide to continue with allowing suspensions as a recourse. Regardless, the petition has directed attention to racial inequality and healthier alternatives for correcting misbehavior, especially when it stems from early childhood trauma.
The board of education is currently overhauling its complete policy manual. On Tuesday the policy committee will present a bundle of revised drafts to the board for their approval. Those include Policy 4300, the student behavior policy, as well as Policy 4351, the short-term suspension policy.
The tactic of temporarily removing a student from school as a punishment has been widely recognized as racially unjust in NHCS and across the U.S. for some time now. Data shows suspensions are disproportionately handed down to students of color over their white peers.
For the last few months, board-of-education members and administrators have scrutinized sentences and penned revisions to Policy 4300. The policy explains why student behavior is managed, how the information is incorporated into the student code of conduct and lists ways school staff may respond to “minor violations,” one of those being short-term suspensions.
North Carolina statute requires school districts to adopt a policy that governs student conduct. No. 4300 sets up the framework for other policies that follow in the manual and hone in on specific offenses, such as gang activity, tobacco, assault, and weapons. Before any of those can move forward, No. 4300 must be adopted first.
As of Friday morning, the New Hanover County NAACP Education Committee’s petition had garnered just over 380 signatures. (The district has approximately 26,500 students.) The petition is signed by the New Hanover County Association of Educators and the Wilmington chapter of Black Lives Matter, among others.
New Hanover County Health and Human Services Director Donna Fayko also voiced support of the effort in an email to county staff, noting that the department of social services sees firsthand how underlying family issues may impact behavior in school. A suspension, she noted, could exacerbate challenges at home.
“Suspensions don’t improve student behavior or school climate,” said George Vlasits, chairperson of the NHC-NAACP Education Committee. “Frequently, ‘acting out’ is a result of frustration when a student doesn’t understand or feels put down. Suspensions make things worse.”
The petition asks the district to provide staff training on non-punitive practices of improving behavior, noting that it is especially important now as students return to school with decreased socialization and learning loss after essentially a year-long break due to the pandemic. The committee maintains that suspensions lead students to associate school with feelings of resentment and anxiety, in addition to stunting their academic growth.
“I think that’s the absolute resort,” said board member Judy Justice. “This banning would help people focus more on doing things that would help these kids. I mean, there’s just so many other ways to deal with kids.”
New Hanover County’s Resiliency Task Force, another group backing the petition, is actively helping schools become more “trauma-informed.” The idea is that by understanding how a student may act due to impacts of adverse experiences, educators and staff can create environments where children are comfortable enough to set aside their fears and stress, then behave properly and focus on learning.
Mebane Boyd, the coordinator of the task force, explained children who have endured trauma are often in a fight-or-flight mode. Even the seemingly harmless act of a teacher placing his or her palm on a child’s shoulder could lead to misbehavior in the classroom. For example, if a child is a victim of domestic violence, they may perceive that touch as threatening, causing the child to react by throwing a chair or having an outburst.
“When we suspend children, we’re reinforcing that idea that, ‘You are not lovable,’” Boyd said. “‘You are not welcome here. We don’t believe you’re capable.’”
As an appointee to the policy committee, school board member Stephanie Kraybill advocated for the addition of restorative practices in Policy 4300. The approach to behavior issues suggests engaging in dialogue is more advantageous than assigning automatic penalty. Kraybill said she does not necessarily want to give suspensions to younger students, but she is “fairly supportive” of it as a last resort.
“It’s gonna be hard to take that language out,” she said. “Because there are, unfortunately, times when young children do some bad things.”
The proposed policy also lists at least 18 alternatives to punishment, from exclusion from extracurricular activities to community service. There’s also student conferences, peer mediation, parental involvement and short time-outs.
“I think policies need to be as comprehensive as possible and cover any and all eventualities,” said vice chair Nelson Beaulieu, who also sits on the policy committee. “Just because something is written in policy doesn’t mean that that’s the go-to for any punishment.”
Still, Beaulieu said he’s up for discussion when it comes forward Tuesday night.
Chair Adams indicated she is positive the policy committee has fully vetted the drafts. The small group of board members and central office staff meets roughly three hours each month to go through the policies, tweaking the language and sometimes striking or adding full paragraphs.
“When they bring a policy forward, I trust that they are making the right recommendation for our schools,” Adams said. “I still have to review it myself and see what the updates have been, and where the discussion has led it.”
If NHCS were to take action to limit or ban suspensions, it would be one of the first in North Carolina to do so. Although, some board members are interested in other directions. Kraybill said there should be more intentional steps outlined for what happens when a child returns from a suspension.
Board member Stephanie Walker said the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee has begun collecting data on suspensions, but she stressed a ban would need to involve consulting with teachers on the applicability. She added that hiring more educators of color could in turn lead to decreased disciplining of minority students.
For now, Walker hopes a vote on Policy 4300 is delayed to the interim meeting later in the month, possibly beyond.
“If we can talk about some of the other methods for students managing behavior, instead of going for suspensions, it makes a lot of sense,” Walker said.
The board of education will meet Tuesday, March 2, at 5:30 p.m. The public may watch live on the NHCS YouTube channel.
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