Suspensions in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools dropped to a record low last school year, which officials attribute to a push to keep students in school after minor offenses.
The goal, they say, is offering constructive alternatives for students who mouth off or scuffle, while drawing a hard line against dangerous behavior. A report presented Thursday morning to the N.C. Board of Education indicates mixed results.
In 2014-15, CMS saw possession of drugs and weapons, sexual misbehavior by students and assaults on school staff rise over the previous school year. But the number of criminal and violent acts reported in CMS remained well below those in 2008-12, when the district saw such incidents soar. And serious student-on-student violence fell to a 10-year low.
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The state requires all public schools to report 16 types of criminal and violent acts. In CMS and across the state, possession of drugs and weapons other than guns accounts for more than 70 percent of all episodes. Assaults on school personnel, which can range from serious attacks to a push in the hallway, and alcohol possession run third and fourth, with everything else accounting for less than 5 percent of offenses.
The state calculates a ratio of criminal and violent acts in high schools, where most such offenses take place. CMS’ rate of 15.3 acts per 1,000 high school students tops the state average (13.2) and levels for Wake (12.5) and Guilford (14.8), the state’s other large districts.
Latasha Smith, the CMS administrator in charge of discipline, noted that crime and violence rose in Charlotte last year.
“We’re seeing the same things in society that mirrors what we’re seeing in schools,” Smith said.
Lower rates at charter schools
Charter schools, which are public schools run by independent boards, reported a much lower rate of criminal and violent incidents. An Observer tally of incidents for 31 charter schools in and near Mecklenburg County showed an overall rate of 2.6 per 1,000 students, a tally that includes younger students.
In charters and in CMS, rates varied by school. Several charter and CMS schools reported no incidents last school year, while others had high rates. In small schools, a few incidents can spike the rates.
CMS logged extremely high crime/violence rates at three small special schools. Lincoln Heights and Metro schools serve students with severe disabilities, and most of their incidents involved assaults on school staff. Turning Point Academy is an alternative school for students with serious disciplinary issues; most of its incidents involved possession of drugs or alcohol.
For several years, CMS has been trying to reduce out-of-school suspensions.
In 2011-12, CMS was logging almost 50 short-term suspensions per 1,000 high school students, compared with a state average of 30. The latest CMS rate was down to 21.3 per 1,000 – still well above the state average (19.5) and Wake (10.4) and Guilford (13.3), but less than half the rate of three years earlier.
Not only does sending students home set them back academically, but local and national data show that black students – especially males – get suspended at disproportionate rates for what educators call “discretionary offenses.” Those are actions that involve a faculty judgment call and don’t create danger at school, things such as insubordination, failure to follow rules, and arguments or minor scuffles between students.
Smith and CMS Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes said the district has been training staff – not just teachers but others who deal with students, such as bus drivers – in techniques for talking to students in ways that calm them, rather than escalating a conflict or emotional outburst.
Schools are trying alternatives to suspension. For instance, Barnes and Smith said, a student disrupting class might be removed from the room but kept in school to work in another location. Students caught fighting might be referred to a class in anger management, along with their parents. Getting families involved in solutions is crucial, CMS officials said, because many of the problems at school come from homes and neighborhoods.
This school year, the district is working with the International Institute for Restorative Practices on a five-school trial program in problem-solving techniques. Faculty at Vance High, Martin and King middle schools, Morehead STEM Academy (a K-8 magnet school) and Hidden Valley Elementary are learning tactics such as restorative circles, in which students causing problems talk with the people affected by them, with everyone taking responsibility for solutions.
For instance, Smith said, a student who is frequently disruptive might hear from classmates for whom he makes it harder for them to finish their work, leaving them with more homework.
No free pass, no panacea
CMS reported 22,196 short-term suspensions last school year, down from 24,121 the year before. Suspensions of up to 10 days account for the vast majority of disciplinary actions across the state, and the state total rose slightly last year.
Long-term suspensions in CMS rose from eight to 46, which officials cite as a sign that they’re not giving students a break on major infractions. Those suspensions, which can include assignment to an alternative school, are reserved for the most serious offenses.
“While we’re here to support you, to educate you and to care for you, there are consequences,” Smith said.
Expulsion is rare across North Carolina, with 42 students expelled statewide. Two were from CMS.
“An expulsion is usually reserved for cases where the student is at least 14 years of age and presents a clear threat of danger to self or others,” the state report said. “The acts do not have to occur on school premises for the superintendent and/or school board to expel a student.”
The drop in short-term suspensions means students spent more time in school, at a time when enrollment continued to grow and graduation rates hit a record high.
But it didn’t eliminate the racial disparity. Black students, who accounted for 40 percent of CMS enrollment last school year, received 79 percent of the short-term suspensions, up slightly from 77 percent the year before.
Across the state, black students, males and ninth-graders were the most likely to be suspended.
Kicked out of CMS
Here are the number of short-term suspensions (one to 10 days), long-term suspensions (11 days to the remainder of a school year) and expulsions reported for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the past two school years.
Source: N.C. Department of Public Instruction
Most troubled schools
Here are schools in CMS with the highest number of criminal or violent incidents in 2014-15, calculated per 1,000 students. Because many schools have fewer than 1,000 students, the rate might be higher than the number of incidents. Lincoln Heights, Turning Point and Metro are small schools for students with disabilities or behavior issues.
West Meck High
West Charlotte High