NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Almost a year after New Hanover County Schools readopted its out-of-school suspensions policy, prompting a local movement to end the practice for young students, a motion was made at the dais Tuesday night to end the use of the punitive discipline.
School board members also took up a discussion about barring the practice of seclusion, but no action was taken before the end of the night. In both cases, a majority of the board did not want to commit to an end date or specific goal, in spite of months of public outcry. During the meeting, eight speakers spoke out against suspensions, three advocated for a stop to seclusion and two people spoke to both.
“Where is the humanity? Suspension of 4-, 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds needs to be done away with,” Alicia Ogundele said during public comment. “The majority of you on the board have children [or] have grandchildren, yet you lack the concern of suspending 4-, 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds because, more likely, it doesn’t affect your children. However, it does affect mine.”
For a year, advocates have pushed for a ban on suspending the district’s youngest learners, arguing the practice is harmful and is disproportionately used against minorities. The request, revised in April, includes exceptions in cases of drugs, weapons or violent assault.
So far this school year, 41 out-of-school suspensions were assigned to students ages 4 to 7, according to data NHCS shared. Of those cases, 18 are Black students, though Black students only account for around 17% of NHCS’ total student population. Fifteen of the suspended children are white, five are Hispanic, and three are of multiple ethnicities.
The majority of the suspended children, 34, are boys, and seven are girls.
Board member Judy Justice made the motion to ban out-of-school suspensions of 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-year-olds, except in the extreme circumstances the advocates had listed. She received a second from vice-chair Stephanie Walker and board member Pete Wildeboer joined in support. It failed in a split vote, the remaining four officials opposed.
“If we have the will and desire to do it, and we have programs in place that we can model after for everyone else, then I think that’s an attainable goal,” Walker said.
Earlier in the meeting, the board had received updates on the Behavior Leadership Foundation, a staff development program. By implementing social-emotional learning practices, schools were able to reduce suspensions significantly, data shows. For example, Sunset Park Elementary had 40 out-of-school suspensions in the second quarter of 2017. That number dropped to 24 in 2019, and then just two in 2021.
Snipes Academy reduced its out-of-school suspensions, down from 11 in 2017 to seven in 2021, but rates of in-school suspension skyrocketed. There were 63 incidents of in-school suspension in the second quarter, up from zero in 2019. That’s likely because the school is heavily utilizing its program “Choices,” where students spend the day after they exhibit bad behavior. They think about the choice they made, receive counseling and mental health services if they’re signed up for it, and are given one-on-one academic support.
To the state, it is still reported as an in-school suspension, but students understand the place they are going as “Choices.”
Overall, the total elementary out-of-school suspensions assigned in the second quarter fell from 274 in 2017 and 215 in 2019 to 55 this past fall.
The board attorney confirmed a majority of the members could vote to put a new policy into effect next year, ceasing out-of-school suspensions. Justice pushed for initiating the ban next school year, a timeline she believed gave teachers more than enough time to prepare and for high-risk schools to put in place programs similar to Choices, if they haven’t already. Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust was unsure at the meeting how many elementary schools had an alternative to the traditional in-school suspension, but he said a lot of campuses call their programs by different names.
Advocate and former NHCS employee Veronica McLaurin-Brown told Port City Daily she doesn’t believe every school needs training before they can move forward on the ban, since some schools already report zero out-of-school suspensions. Of 24 elementary campuses, nine are part of the Behavior Leadership Foundation cohort and two are exemplary schools.
Seven elementary schools that are not participating had zero out-of-school suspensions in the second quarter. The other six schools had two or fewer suspensions, with the exception of Blair, which had three; Bellamy had five. This is in spite of behavioral issues educators are seeing post-Covid school closures, as many students currently lack the skills to manage social interactions and turn to fighting.
“One of the things educators are complaining about is unnecessary staff development,” McLaurin-Brown said. “So if you have a school that has zero suspensions, why would you be taking everybody through it? Why would you have to take everybody through it before you change the policy?”
McLaurin-Brown is a core team member of Love Our Children, the local movement behind the push to end suspensions. (McLaurin-Brown filed to run for New Hanover County Board of Education on Thursday.)
Board member Stefanie Adams said during the meeting she agreed with the Love Our Children campaign — but, she added, she also witnessed a second-grade class get evacuated last week after a child threw a chair across the room. Then, she said, two fights broke out in her son’s class last week, one of which drew blood.
“I want to give the time to the administration to continue to do the good work that they’re doing and the 12 schools that they’re piloting it with,” Adams said. “Three years seems like a long time … I would so much rather do this right than rush to change something and then we have to go back on it.”
She and Nelson Beaulieu both said they would be willing to set a goal for three years. But neither made a motion. Beaulieu indicated he felt the plan with the Behavior Leadership Foundation was sufficient and he trusted the process.
Superintendent Foust cautioned against banning suspensions outright.
“If you take away all options — they don’t know what to do — they’re gonna do something,” Foust said.
He clarified that when he was principal, pre-2013, there were times when administrators simply suggested parents take their kids home.
“They will get around the word suspension,” Foust said. “If you push people in a corner — and that’s what I’m trying to get through to the board, to make sure that we aren’t putting people in legal jeopardy by taking away everything, and then if they don’t follow the policy, then there are personnel issues that we have to come up with. And then we have morale issues.”
McLaurin-Brown said she was pleased with the positives that came of Tuesday night’s meeting: The fact a motion was made and it earned three votes — just one away from approval and three more than last year.
But she said she would also have been outraged if they motioned for a goal of three years, given their progress so far in reducing suspensions and research that shows out-of-school suspensions hurt children.
“Principals come and go. Superintendents come and go. Board members come and go. Teachers come and go. But when you put in good policy, it can last for generations,” McLaurin-Brown said. “When you have bad policy, it can last for generations. This is a bad policy.”
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