NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Two of New Hanover County Schools’ committees dealing with civil rights issues and equity are exploring the possibility of merging their work.
At Monday’s Title IX Committee meeting, school board representatives Stephanie Kraybill and Stephanie Walker posed the idea of converging the panel with the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Committee. How the union would look is yet to be determined — whether it’s a complete dissolution of one board, an entirely fresh slate, or continuing with two separate but collaborative bodies. A meeting is scheduled for Mar. 10 to discuss.
All 22 members of the Title IX Committee and 22 EDI Committee members are invited to the face-to-face session.
“We’re thinking we need to marry up a little bit with our two groups,” school board chair Kraybill said.
The potential shift comes just as the Title IX Committee has wrapped and reviewed the outcome of its Title IX survey, a significant project the members worked on for several months in early 2021. It was approved in May for distribution to students in November. NHCS also recently appointed its first chief equity diversity officer in Dr. LaChawn Smith, the former deputy superintendent, who is heading the new EDI office.
Jarelle Lewis stepped into the role of Title IX coordinator in September 2019 and sits on both committees. Previously, former deputy superintendent Rick Holliday served as the coordinator. He retired in July 2019 amid allegations the school administration failed to report knowledge of child abuse.
NHCS also hired a Title IX investigator. John Henry filled the position in February 2020.
Dealing with issues specific to sex or gender identity, the Title IX Committee held its first meeting in March 2019. The EDI Committee formed shortly after, in November of that year. Lewis said it makes sense now to join the two bodies, rather than continue undertaking separate-but-similar work without communication.
“That way, we will be able to look at all of these equity issues in our district with all the appropriate partners at the table at the same time,” Lewis said.
Board member Walker indicated a merge appears to be the natural progression. She said, together, the two bodies can better call on the administration to draw data, help strategize and set goals, and determine whether those are accomplished.
“I’m really hopeful going forward that we’re going to really be able to drill down a lot of issues,” Walker said.
The Title IX survey results revealed heightened levels of discrimination amongst transgender and gender-conforming students, which raises concerns about the risk of those teens committing suicide. During the most recent Title IX meeting, ideas were floated about how to make students more aware of reporting methods or to increase training for staff.
Member Leslie Cohen said teachers can sometimes turn into students’ bullies by refusing to use their preferred names or joking about the number of genders. Lewis, who reviews all reports, could corroborate Cohen’s concerns about staff behavior, particularly referring to incidents where a teacher declines to call a student by the name they ask. He called it disheartening, but noted bullying and Title IX policies are in place to protect students against both their classmates and staff.
Jennifer Tucker, a family life educator, recommended every school create a Gay–Straight Alliance Club, as a safe space on campus.
After reviewing the survey results, Walker — who called the questionnaire a “milestone” for the district — said some of the suggestions were ideal to work on in partnership with EDI stakeholders.
“Going forward, we can take these surveys and we can really find out what we can do to help students because, in the end, that’s really what we’re trying to do,” Walker said. “We want to help make the lives of our students better. Meet them where they are. Find out what they need, and hopefully, prevent some of the things that we’re seeing happening, that we saw from the results of the survey.”
The district is also in the midst of outling a strategic plan. As part of that, it is prioritizing equity, diversity and inclusion efforts.
The meeting between the two committees will take place at 5 p.m. in the board of education center. Kraybill said the school system is trying to move back to more in-person meetings to return to a “sense of normalcy.”
NHCS typically streams all meetings on YouTube.
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