Politics & Government

Some NC lawmakers want schools to repeal Obama-era student discipline policies

School suspensions used more frequently in southern states

Duke law professor Jane Wettach discusses school suspensions
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Duke law professor Jane Wettach discusses school suspensions

Some state lawmakers say they want to reaffirm local control over school discipline policies, but critics are worried that the proposed legislative changes could increase suspensions for minority students.

The state Senate voted 21-16 along party lines last week to pass a bill requiring school districts to repeal discipline policies based on guidance from the Obama Administration that warned about racial disparities in suspensions. The bill requires districts to replace those discipline policies with new ones based on “local standards of conduct,” although they can also readopt their current policies.

“It requires school districts to reset their discipline policies in light of the fact hat the ruling in 2014 from the Education Department has been rescinded by the current administration,” Sen. Rick Horner, a Wilson Republican and one of the bill’s primary sponsors, said in an interview. “All it requires is that local boards repeal the policies based on criteria that is no longer valid.

“It gives the local boards complete leeway if they want to implement the policies that were in place.”

But Sen. Erica Smith, a Northampton County Democrat, warned her colleagues that passing Senate Bill 476 would mean repealing policies that have been “put in place to protect all students and provide equity and fairness in the discipline policy.”

“I would urge my colleagues to think long and hard about the effect of this bill and the potential it has to ruin the lives of under-represented students who are already challenged, many of them by high poverty,” Smith said on the Senate floor.

The bill is now in the hands of the state House. But the fight over the legislation highlights the tension between trying to maintain a safe and orderly school environment while also ensuring students aren’t unnecessarily suspended from school.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education sent school districts guidance about how racial disparities in suspensions may be the result of racial discrimination. For instance, black students in North Carolina are 4.3 times more likely than white students to be suspended, according to the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

The guidance warned school districts they could lose federal funding if discrimination was found. Schools were encouraged to find alternatives to suspensions such as “restorative practices” designed to get students to change their behavior.

Since 2012, suspensions have declined nationally, according to a 2018 analysis by National Public Radio. In North Carolina, short-term suspensions have dropped 14.8 percent over the last five years. The Wake County school system has seen a 50-percent reduction in suspensions since 2007.

Both the Wake County school system and Durham Public Schools agreed to make changes to their discipline policies as part of settlements with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

“What Obama-era policies did was not necessarily make districts or schools any tougher or less tougher on behavior,” Wake school board vice chairman Keith Sutton said in an interview. “What they did, in my view, is force schools and districts to look at the performance of their subgroups, both academically and from a behavioral standpoint.

“And as districts started to look at what was happening with subgroups, they became aware and started paying more attention to policies around suspensions.”

But a federal report released in December said that the 2014 guidance “has likely had a strong, negative impact on school discipline and safety.” The report also said the guidance has had a “chilling effect on school discipline” and “leads to school environments where discipline decisions may be based on race rather than student safety.”

The Trump Administration rescinded the 2014 guidance, which Horner, co-chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said, led to the bill being filed.

Horner said he was surprised that the bill drew so much opposition last week. Only Republicans voted for the bill and only Democrats voted no.

“It doesn’t preclude them (school districts) from doing anything,” said Horner, a former school board member. “It requires them to take a relook under policies that are no longer held by the federal Department of Education. I don’t see how that’s terrible.”

But Peggy Nicholson, director of the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, questioned how the bill is living up to its name of reaffirming local control when it would force school districts to spend time reviewing and revising their policies.

“It’s discouraging to see this kind of legislation pass,” Nicholson said in an interview. “The guidance that did come from the U.S. Department of Education was based on best practices used to promote positive school environments.

“To discourage districts from using best models from other places is discouraging and troubling.”

Sutton, the Wake school board member, said he agreed with Sen. Smith that the bill could result in increased suspensions, especially in districts that only changed their discipline policies due to the 2014 federal guidance.

“We have a heightened sense of awareness around looking at subgroups and disparities so I think many districts probably won’t revert back,” said Sutton, who has announced that he’ll run for state schools superintendent in 2020. “But for some who because of those policies that was the only reason they were doing what they were doing, I think some could go back.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.


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