By Elly Cosgrove | May 19, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT – Updated May 19 at 12:28 AM
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – The New Hanover County Schools Board of Education heard plans tonight to reduce suspension rates in its schools.
Julie Varnam, the Assistant Superintendent of Student Support Services, gave a presentation on the plan for management of student behavior in schools.
“The goal, of course, is to maintain as much face-to-face instructional time with students as possible, so really addressing the root cause of the behavior is the more proactive and positive response as opposed to removing from an instructional opportunity,” Varnam said. “So I think we have a collective combined agreement on doing that with our youngest of learners is going to likely change their trajectory of student success throughout their educational career.”
There was recently a push to have school suspensions removed as a punishment option for elementary school students in New Hanover County.
The New Hanover County NAACP Parents’ Council pushed to eliminate suspensions for younger students, because the data showed black students were being disproportionately suspended.
Data from the 2018–2019 school year, the last school year not impacted by a hurricane or pandemic, paints a telling picture. Out of 2,900 suspensions that year, more than 60% of the suspensions were Black students — even though they only make up 18% of the population.
While suspensions have not been eliminated for elementary school students — language has been adopted to further instill that suspensions should be used as a last resort in disciplinary action. Now it is just a matter of implementing the updated policy in county schools.
Schools will be invited to participate in a Behavior Leadership Foundations Professional Learning Community. This involves 30 hours of training that will better equip these schools to address student behavior in a more positive way.
“One of the most positive ways that you can deal with student misbehavior is to prevent them from becoming more intensive or severe and a lot of that comes into understanding the escalation of behavior and then really understanding how to deescalate behavior in a way that’s very discrete, so that it is very effective,” Varnam said.
Eight elementary schools have been selected first to participate based on needs assessment data such as in-school-suspension and out-of-school-suspension rates.
“There’s definitely a collective concern among community and practitioners and public education alike and the prevalence of out-of-school or in-school suspensions, but especially out-of-school suspension among our youngest learners,” Varnam said on why the identified elementary schools first. “Knowing that that sets the stage for their academic success, their idea of motivation, their self-efficacy of being a learner. We know that that’s something that we can target right away and really support our schools that really need to enhance their skills in that way, support them in making immediate change.”
A group called the New Hanover County Educational Justice was in attendance tonight. They say they would like to see suspensions eliminated for Pre-K, Kindergarten, first and second grade students.
“What the school district has in place now is really a one-size-fits-all policy that is we’re treating our four-year-olds the same way we are treating our 14 year olds. We are treating our 6 year olds the same way as we’re treating our 16-year-olds,” said Peter Rawitsch, a New Hanover County Educational Justice member.
Board Member Stephanie Kraybill presented a Title IX survey that was drafted by the Title IX Committee.
The school board unanimously approved the survey. The goal is for it to be administered as early as possible next school year to give the school board time to study the results and put more programming in place where its needed.
“But we have to figure out, you know, do they do it in homeroom, do they do it in a certain class, do we do it on our personal laptops, you know, how are we actually going to do that and it’s a little harder than just, ‘here do the survey.’”
The survey is intended to assess New Hanover County Schools’ climate regarding sexual harassment and gender- based harassment.
Kraybill said the survey had been discussed for quite some time, but that the Title IX committee was sidetracked during the heart of the pandemic.
“We had to just sort of realign and pull the group back together, we had a change in leadership,” she said. “When we were setting our goals initially that was one of the things that bubbled to the surface right away — that we need to just get back on this and we’ve already got a good skeleton lets just go to the finish line.”
The survey would go out to all middle school and high school students.
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