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Black students are 4.4 times as likely as white students to receive short-term suspensions at Chatham County Schools, according to 2019-20 discipline data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.
Short-term suspension rates for students with disabilities are 4 times higher than white students, according to that same data; rates for American Indian students are 3.5 times higher, multiracial students are 3.2 times higher and economically disadvantaged students are 2.4 higher.
Such disparities led the NAACP Chatham Community Branch #5377 in Pittsboro to form a criminal justice committee. Their task: studying the district’s discipline data and working with administrators to reduce such disparities.
“The reason we want to see a reduction generally is that we know that those disparities tell us that students are being treated unequally in some way, at least when it comes down to how they’re categorized by race or disability status, or even economic status,” David Delaney, chairperson for NAACP Chatham Community Branch’s criminal justice committee, told the News + Record. “And if folks in the schools and families and community members can know why that disparate treatment is happening, then we might be able to go back and say, ‘We can fix it in particular ways.’ And there are lots of good reasons for doing that.”
The committee released a 49-page report, “Brighter Futures: A Plan of Action for a Community Partnership to Promote Student Achievement in Chatham County, NC” compiling its findings in September, which it shared with CCS.
The report recommends the following goals:
• limit school resource officer (SRO) disciplinary and investigative roles to state law mandates
• eliminate disparities across student groups in disciplinary practices or reports to law enforcement
• reduce by 90% the sum of reports to law enforcement as well as disciplinary practices that remove students from normal learning environments.
CCS’s Chris Poston, who was named the district’s executive director for excellence and opportunity earlier this year, said the CCS Equity and Excellence for Everyone (E3) team is continuing to focus on these issues. Poston’s new role, also new to the district, will involve leading efforts to implement the district’s equity plans, which have formally been in place for the last five years.
A big emphasis for the team this year, Poston said, is on building positive relationships between students and staff, with the hope of creating a more inclusive space for more students. Last semester, the group also launched its two-year equity training and assessment efforts with a group called The Equity Collaborative.
“... We’ve been talking about, what are some of the barriers that students are facing? And how can we create some additional opportunities for our students?” Poston said. “I think as we create those opportunities and give more kids access to them, we’ll see a decrease in our discipline data, because kids have this agency to want to engage.”
The state’s most recent discipline data is for 2019-20, which includes March 2020, when N.C. schools were closed by Gov. Roy Cooper to slow the spread of COVID-19.
According to that data, disabled, Black, Hispanic and multiracial student groups in Chatham experienced much higher rates of alleged criminal acts at school and referrals to law enforcement than white students, the Chatham NAACP’s report said. Black and multiracial students were the only racial subgroup with higher rates of both.
Moving forward, the group’s criminal justice committee hopes to work with CCS to better understand the reasons for such disparities.
“For student privacy and other data reasons, we don’t know anything more about those circumstances that led to suspensions, or to referrals to law enforcement,” Delaney said. “Because that’s not in the data that the state makes available to the public.”
Though the NAACP’s committee doesn’t know specific reasons behind CCS’s 2019-20 discipline incidents, Delaney said the committee anticipates that several reasons contribute to existing disparities.
One such reason is zero-tolerance policies — laws or codes dictating that certain acts by students will always be addressed in a certain way. State law, for example, requires principals to report certain assaults or acts at school to law enforcement.
“The NAACP seeks to ‘eliminate zero-tolerance policies implemented in our schools, which are keeping kids out of the classroom and putting them on a path from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse,’” the Brighter Futures report says. “Zero-tolerance policies often involve expulsions, out-of-school suspensions, transfers out of normal learning environments, or reports to law enforcement. Such policies emerged over decades, concurrent with a more visible presence of law enforcement officers in U.S. schools.”
Delaney said zero-tolerance policies can also be more informal — such as a principal or teacher always responding to certain behaviors with officer referrals that might lead to suspensions.
CCS has worked to promote restorative school practices in recent years, said Executive Director of Student Services Tracy Fowler. The district has also hosted student focus groups to learn how students feel about school discipline and engagement, particularly among African American students — about whom data shows consistently experience the highest disparities.
Among African American female students, Fowler said, many mentioned feeling unequally targeted by teachers enforcing school dress codes. Though dress code violations themselves don’t typically turn into suspensions, Fowler said, it’s an example of how potential bias among teachers can create disparities and student frustration, which leads to disengagement.
“How can we not make everything punitive? We’ve had a lot of conversations around that, and we did see some decrease in the data for a little while, but some of it increased again, over some time,” Fowler said. “But it’s definitely been this kind of effort to make sure that we’re having conversations and working with staff to look at alternatives to out-of-school suspension.”
In recent years, protests to defund the police led some students and community members to call on school boards and systems to remove school resource officers — law enforcement officers assigned to one or more public schools within a local school administrative unit — from schools.
CCS has 11 school resource officers, according to Chief Operations Officer Chris Blice, who are primarily assigned to middle and high schools. The district has a memorandum of agreement between the Chatham County Sheriff Department, Pittsboro Police Department and Siler City Department.
School resource officers can perform investigations and arrests, search and interrogations — which some think may potentially increase disparities among already marginalized students. Last January, a two-part report by Scalawag, a nonprofit magazine focused on Southern politics and culture, documented student efforts at Wake County Schools to remove school resource officers from their schools. At Raleigh’s Enloe Magnet High School, 74% of students stopped by SROs were Black in 2019-20, while only 6% were white, according to a fact sheet compiled by the Education Justice Alliance, the Scalawag report said.
Blice said the officers’ primary function is to promote school safety and security by building positive relationships with students.
“They’re really helping kids understand that law enforcement is most definitely not your enemy, and they’re really there to help you,” said Blice, a former school principal.
“There’s a lot of catchphrases and a lot of things out there, and it’s always amazing to me how schools get pulled into those kinds of things,” he said. “You know, school resource officers in schools don’t do discipline — so they’re not suspending kids by law, they can’t do that, only principal can suspend. It isn’t their role, and it’s not what they do. School resource officers are a good thing in our schools, and it’s a very positive thing. It’s positive for the kids. It’s positive for our staff. It’s positive for our schools. It’s positive for our communities. These folks are great, and they train to work with kids.”
The Chatham NAACP report doesn’t address or take a position on the need for school resource officers, but instead encourages CCS to reduce any existing disparities among officer actions.
“The school system has told us that there are so many instances where they see kids respond positively to an SRO, and that’s great,” Delaney said. “But what we also know is that there are communities, particularly those who are experiencing these disparities, who do not traditionally have positive interactions with law enforcement early on. And so to create a circumstance where those children must continue to encounter law enforcement in some combination of ways, may not be the best thing to do — and we should be able to talk broadly about those issues.”
SROs account for little of school discipline practices, Delaney said. Addressing school discipline practices holistically is an important part of helping achieve student success, he said. In many cases, Chatham is doing better when it comes to discipline disparities than neighboring counties and school districts, the NAACP report says.
Still, studies show that students who enter the criminal justice system are more likely to end up to have recurring incidents in the criminal justice system, and according to Chief District Court Judge Samantha Cabe, suspended students are three times more likely to end up in the criminal justice system than students who are not.
“Now that we agree on what the data show — they show disparities, we all understand the importance of capturing and addressing that behavior early to prevent folks living a life in prison or having those experiences as a child,” Delaney said, “Don’t you agree that it’s worth really digging into the way that those students are becoming suspended in the first place, and try(ing) to eliminate those needs?”
Are you a student or parent with thoughts on school disciplinary practices? We’d love to hear from you for future stories. You can reach Reporter Hannah McClellan at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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