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NC Discipline Bill Revives Debate Over Suspension, Safety And Equity

Taylor Wilcox
Taylor Wilcox

Updated at 10 a.m. March 26.

A school discipline bill in front of the North Carolina House has revived debate over school discipline, racial equity and dropout prevention.

By now, the link between race, suspensions and dropouts has been well established across the country: Black students, especially Black males, are disproportionately likely to be kicked out of school. The majority of offenses that get them removed are the kind that involve judgment calls — things like being disrespectful to teachers or disrupting class — rather than criminal acts like bringing a gun or illegal drugs to schools.

And suspension puts students on a troublesome path toward disengagement, failure and even dropping out of school.

State Rep. Graig Meyer
NC General Assembly
State Rep. Graig Meyer, D-Hillsborough

This week state Rep. Graig Meyer, a Hillsborough Democrat who serves on the House Education Committee, reminded the committee that about 10 years ago, educators, students, law enforcement officers and others interested in reducing dropout rates agreed that schools should rely less on suspensions to deal with relatively minor offenses.

“Minor,” of course, is a judgment call. Current state law says expulsion and long-term suspension — that’s more than 10 days — should be reserved for serious violations that threaten the safety of students or staff, or that substantially disrupt the educational environment. And it spells out four examples of behavior that generally should not be classified as serious: use of inappropriate or disrespectful language, dress code violations, failure to comply with staff directives and fights that don’t cause injuries or involve weapons.

"We passed this law in 2011 to try and cut down on dropouts, increase the number of high school graduates, have an educated and employable workforce," Meyer said.

Racial disparities in suspensions haven’t vanished, but Meyer says suspensions and expulsions have decreased every year since then, "and we’ve been graduating more kids from high school and we’ve been increasing the educational attainment of the entire state of North Carolina by doing this. It is a good law."

Principals Should Decide

But some Republican lawmakers want to remove the list of examples that should not lead to long-term removal from school. Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican who co-chairs the Education Committee, told the group he thinks it should be up to principals to decide what’s serious.

State Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston
State Rep. John Torbett
North Carolina General Assembly
State Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston

"If someone was repeatedly calling you a very ugly or nasty name and you’re a teacher, I would hope that you would like your principal to be able to respond that that is a serious offense, because they are threatening you, to a level," he said.

Torbett is a lead sponsor of a bill that makes several revisions to the discipline law, including a requirement that school districts and charter schools report their discipline policies to the state on an annual basis.

"The ultimate intent is to improve discipline in schools and responsibility of our students," he said.

It was the list of non-serious offenses that sparked debate this week. Rep. Rachel Hunt, a Charlotte Democrat, tried to amend Torbett’s bill to keep the list intact.

Rep. Larry Potts, a Lexington Republican, argued that all the offenses listed should be considered serious.

"If a student walks up to another student on Monday without a weapon, calls him all kind of vile names and slaps him upside his head, that’s really not a serious offense?" he said.

And Potts cited an example of dress code violations that could be serious: "If most of the school walks around with their britches hanging, down their posterior showing, and swearing all the time, it’d probably be subjective that that wouldn’t be a real problem."

Students of Color Could Suffer

Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat who co-chaired the dropout commission, said removing the examples of non-serious offenses could lead to an increase in suspensions and dropouts.

"And if we do not have a diverse board looking at this, or a diverse group of people looking at this, we’re going to also see, as we have seen in the past, a very pointed suspension and expulsion of students of color," she said.

Ten Democrats on the committee voted to keep the language as is, while 15 Republicans voted to remove the list. It’s just the first step in a long process of revising the law.

However it lands, the revisions aren’t likely to create dramatic change. The existing law already gives principals the authority to decide that offenses on the list can be classified as major if there are aggravating circumstances. And deleting the list won’t undo a decade’s work by school districts to reduce suspensions and racial disparities.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, that’s a top budget goal for Superintendent Earnest Winston.

"We have actually prioritized reducing the number of Black and brown students who are suspended," he told the school board this week when he introduced the 2021 budget plan.

He’s seeking money from the county to create behavior and support centers in 10 schools next year. Those would be designed to serve as alternatives to suspension.

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Corrected: March 26, 2021 at 10:07 AM EDT
This story was revised March 26 to remove incorrect information about the link between suspension and dropouts that Rep. Graig Meyer cited during a committee meeting.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.