NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Community complaints over using seclusion and restraint in New Hanover County schools continued last night as school board members received an update on the policy, among other agenda items.
The public comment period was alive with demands, statistics and even a song protesting seclusion rooms, closet-sized spaces used to isolate students in “crisis situations.”
“Kids don’t belong in a closet at school” and “putting kids in a closet is cruel” were some of the lyrics performed at the podium by Peter Rawitsch, co-founder of Love Our Children in Wilmington, a parenting group that regularly attends meetings.
Increasing calls to end the practice by parents and community members make up a majority of concerns expressed to the board each meeting. Most of the time, it is the only consensus; speakers with differing opinions on other topics often advocate for ending seclusion as an add-on to their main talking points.
New Hanover County uses the practice more than other school districts, recording 71 instances in the first semester of this school year and 25 seclusion rooms across 45 schools.
Many are asking the school board to end the practice, allowed via district policy 4302-R.
“There has to be a better way,” speaker Mahalani Cooper said in the meeting. “There has to be a listening ear here on this panel.”
She shared that seclusion contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline by removing students from learning opportunities. Brown also believes board members should be more understanding of the detrimental effects of isolation as the county recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.
“A lot of people grew into great depressions and they were adults with fully-equipped minds having grown,” Brown said. “We’re dealing with children who don’t get it. We’re excluding children at this time who are still getting adjusted to returning back to school.”
Earlier in the meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Student Support Services Division Julie Varnam presented an update to the board on the policy.
While board members and district staff have said they were exploring less restrictive practices, the board has not taken major action restricting seclusion.
“This is incremental work. We’re not there yet,” Varnam said.
She went on to explain that district staff is working on a “trauma-sensitive approach” to behavioral management in order to prevent crises as much as possible, but also appropriately deal with them when they arise.
The division has contractual partnerships with Lives in the Balance, an advocacy group for collaborative and understanding caregiving methods. According to Varnam, school staff are being trained to respond to crisis situations by shifting their focus in three ways: improving understanding of any challenges that contribute to negative behavior, creating mechanisms that are proactive and collaborative, and following processes that solve problems with students.
Varnam said that response plans are being made by each school right now. District staff will meet with administrators later this month, with the plan submission deadline in September so they can be presented to the board in October. Board members expressed openness to reducing the practice, but did not want to rush into a complete removal.
Another point of contention during public comment was library books. Multiple attendees targeted some books with sexual content, claiming they should be labeled pornography, and since they are provided to minors, are in violation of North Carolina law.
School board candidate Melissa Mason was one attendee who spoke on the matter, accusing district staff of inappropriate conduct and breaking the law.
“Superintendent [Charles] Foust’s administration continues to push the systematic hyper-sexualization of our kids,” Mason said.
The school board is not the only entity that was approached by concerned parents.
As reported by WHQR, parents sent complaints to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, who then sent potentially offensive passages to the district attorney’s office for legal review on June 7.
This interaction happened before the county’s Pride Storytime event on June 21, where books featuring same-sex parents were to be read, was disrupted by the Proud Boys and other community protesters.
District Attorney Ben David analyzed passages from nine books to determine if they violated state law, which bans harmful materials from being circulated to minors.
His verdict was that none of the books were breaking the law. Instead, they are protected by the First Amendment, along with the teachers and administrators that grant access to them.
Mason and other meeting attendees disagreed with that decision and continued to ask the board to remove the texts from schools.
In a less controversial presentation, the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce introduced a program to expose 7th grade students to job opportunities in Wilmington. Called the Leadership Development Academy, 40 students across all middle schools would visit sponsored sites once a month for eight months to learn about Port City careers.
“When I got to Wilmington five years ago, I heard, ‘You got to leave Wilmington to get a good job,’” said Natalie English, Chamber of Commerce president and CEO. “That’s just not true anymore.”
Students will gain knowledge in the county’s major economic sectors outlined in the 2022 Economic Development Report. Those are digital technologies, warehouse and logistics, life sciences and pharmaceuticals, real estate, hospitality, architecture and engineering, manufacturing, energy and clean technologies and film. Participants will hone skills needed to compete in the job market, such as communication, teamwork and critical thinking. When they move to the next grade, they will serve as ambassadors to incoming program members, furthering their leadership skills.
“I’m fired up about this,” board member Stefanie Adams said. “This is an incredible partnership — it’s about creating from within.”
According to Chief Academic Officer Patrice Faison, students will be picked based on who program staff think would best benefit from and serve the program. According to Faison, this program is for students “in the middle” who may be overlooked by other programs, like academic excellence rewards or extra assistance for struggling students.
“We are not necessarily reaching for the students we always reward or those students we work with because they’re more of a challenge,” Faison said.
English added they eventually hope to expand the program to include more students and a high school program in the future, a sentiment echoed by multiple board members.
The school board is expected to address many recent concerns at their town hall meeting at 5 p.m. on July 19 in the New Hanover County Board of Education Center.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com.