NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Education took a surprise vote Tuesday night to end suspensions of students under 8 years old. The ban kicks in next school year, with a few exceptions in cases of drugs, weapons or violent assault.
The board received a standing ovation after the unanimous vote. Board member Judy Justice thanked a small cheering crowd: “All you did this. You did that. You did that.”
This comes 13 months after the board first readopted its suspension policy. When the policy was reconsidered, community members and the NAACP brought forth pleas to ban the punitive discipline, arguing it is harmful to youth, especially Black boys, and strips them of their safe learning environments. Now the same policy will be revised by a committee to incorporate the new language per the board’s vote.
“We’re thrilled,” education advocate Peter Rawitsch said. “It was a victory for our youngest learners in New Hanover County. The mistakes children make in school are teachable moments. Kicking them out of school only sends them into the school-to-prison pipeline.”
Rawitsch is a founding member of Love Our Children, alongside 2022 school board candidate Veronica McLaurin-Brown. Their group has spoken during every public comment opportunity at board meetings for about a year, donning matching blue-and-white T-shirts.
As of March, 41 out-of-school suspensions had been assigned to students ages 4 to 7 so far in the 2021-22 school year, according to NHCS.
There was plenty of disagreement Tuesday night — and multiple motions made — over how the issue should be handled before it ultimately passed 7-0. School board member Nelson Beaulieu made a motion to send the policy back to the committee with the intent to end suspensions and gather advice from staff on what exceptions should be in place. Stefanie Adams agreed this was ideal because it welcomed the consultation of people who work in the schools, not the outsiders of Love Our Children.
Others thought Beaulieu’s initial motion didn’t go far enough. Board member Hugh McManus made a stronger motion to end suspensions for 4- to 7-year-olds, effective next year, with only three exceptions: drugs, weapons or violent assault. He said they could take it to the policy committee after the vote to address language.
“Right now, we’re going to end it,” McManus said.
After about 20 minutes of back and forth, the board’s attorney suggested a motion. To address concerns about the policy committee deviating from the goal, he told the board to expressly direct the committee to amend the guidelines as it desires: an end to suspensions, subject to the three exceptions, for students under 8 years old. That motion passed unanimously.
Last month, a similar vote failed 3-4, one away from approval. Superintendent Charles Foust cautioned the board against banning suspensions outright as it could put the system in legal jeopardy. (He didn’t chime in during Tuesday’s discussion.) Some board members were inclined to stick with a three-year plan to phase out suspensions through social-emotional learning practices and staff development. However, the program leaders were already reporting much success. For example, Sunset Park Elementary reduced its out-of-school suspensions from 40 in the second quarter of 2017 to just two in 2021.
The board did not distinguish whether the new policy is for both in- and out-of-school suspension. The policy committee is expected to discuss the language during its next meeting later in April. School board members indicated they’d attend to make sure it gets done. The full board would then vote to adopt the newly incorporated language in May.
Rawitsch said this is not the end of Love Our Children’s work. Members plan to continue speaking at board meetings as the policy language is finalized.
“We have described ourselves as an ant taking a tiny bite out of an elephant,” Rawitsch said. “When this new policy is implemented at the beginning of the next school year, we’ll identify and work on another policy issue that will improve the lives of our children and their families.”
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