GCS BOE approves new appeals process for student suspensionsBy Yasmine Regester / November 15, 2019
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Guilford County Schools is now the first public school district in the state to have an appeals process for short-term suspensions.
The Guilford County Board of Education approved changes to the district’s Student Discipline Policy in a five to four vote on Tuesday night.
Dozens of parents, community members, pastors and elected officials packed the school board chambers and even waited in a long line in the cold for a chance to speak for or against the measure during an hour long debate on the changes.
The change in language allows students and parents to appeal any short-term suspensions of 10 or fewer days by a school or district administrator. Requests for an appeal of a short-term suspension would start with the principal, if the suspension was given by an assistant principal. If the school is too small to have an assistant principal, the review would be conducted by the principal’s supervisor or the school support officer.
The final step, if parents/guardians wish to appeal the decision of the principal supervisor, would be Superintendent Sharon Contreras’ designee, who would act on behalf of and with the delegated authority of the superintendent. If they object to the designee’s decision, they can further appeal directly to Contreras. The superintendent’s decision would be final.
Superintendent Contreras made sure to reiterate that the policy’s language made the process clear.
North Carolina law gives local school boards the authority to provide an informal review or appeal for short-term suspensions. The current process already in place for long-term suspensions of more than 10 days will remain, which can be appealed to the Board of Education in a formal hearing. The Student Discipline policy has not been revised since 2011.
The Board of Education’s Policy Committee first presented the proposed change to the district’s student discipline policy at its October 10 meeting and gave 30 days for public comment. The district received more than 100 responses from their online forum. From that, two community groups organized dueling petitions, each one collecting hundreds of signatures.
The Board of Education Policy Committee has stated that the purpose of the change is to ensure greater due process for students and to improve parent-school communication regarding disciplinary actions. They also note the extended period away from classroom instruction is detrimental to student success.
The N.C. NAACP, The Greensboro Branch NAACP, The High Point Branch NAACP, The Pulpit Forum of Greensboro and Vicinity, The Greensboro Business League (GBL) and community members signed onto a petition supporting the changes to the GCS Student Discipline Policy called “For The Sake of Our Children.”
More than 30 speakers from the floor spoke in favor of the measure citing the importance for students to have access to due process because it is a constitutional right as per the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“Our children’s rights don’t diminish once they cross the threshold of GCS schools,” said education advocate Blake Odum. “The vote should be to make GCS work for the democracy of all students.”
The proposed policy change also garnered support from a number of public officials including High Point City council members Michael Holmes, Tyrone Johnson and Cyril Jefferson, Guilford County Commissioner Melvin “Skip” Alston, former school board member Dot Kearns and state house representative Amos Quick III (D-58).
Speakers also shared their personal stories of being unfairly disciplined by school administration and not having any recourse to challenge the decision.
“Every principal runs their school differently and every teacher advocates for their students differently,” said Brandi Collins Calhoun, director of Reproductive and Maternal Health at the Greensboro YWCA.
According to 2017-18 school year data from the N.C. Board of Education, African American students make up 40.7 percent of the GCS student population, but account for 73.6 percent of school suspensions, while White students account for 11.2 percent of suspensions despite making up 32.5 percent of the district.
Proponents spoke about the disparities found in discipline within the school district based on race. UNCG professor Crystal Dixon pointed out that Black students were suspended an average of six days based on data from 2017, while White students only missed four.
Opponents to the policy change signed onto the “Take Back Our Schools” petition, which claimed that the change gave the Superintendent too much power. Community member Mark Robinson said the policy change is turning GCS into a dictatorship.
“I’m against, but not because of color. I’m talking about keeping GCS in the hands of these nine people instead of the hands of one person. We need to keep the power to run our schools in the hands of the principals. It’s not about Black and White, it’s about what is right and what is wrong,” said Robinson.
Some opponents suggested that suspensions are due to poor behavior regardless of race and decreasing the racial-suspension gap only widens the academic achievement gap. The top three schools with the highest level of suspensions are Dudley, Smith and Page High Schools (all minority-majority schools), and the lowest three are Northern, Northwest and Southwest High Schools.
“Is there really a racial disparity when the top three schools have principals who are Black? This tells me it’s not racial, it’s behavioral,” said Steve Mitchell, parent of a Western Guilford High School student.
Local parent Brian Winther, read a statement from Andrew Pollack, a parent whose daughter died in the 2018 Parkland, Florida High School shooting. He and others in opposition expressed concern that more lenient disciplinary policies could make schools more dangerous and undermines the authority of school principals.
“Why would you want to put students in an environment where conduct goes unchecked,” said Winther.
According to the district, principals and assistant principals still retain the legal authority to suspend students in adherence with the Board of Education’s Student Code of Conduct. A principal’s disciplinary decisions will not be reviewed unless there is a specific parent request for an appeal based upon a perceived violation of the Board of Education’s disciplinary policy and Code of Conduct.
Superintendent Contreras also made it clear that a student would not remain in class if the principal determines that this would pose a safety concern.
A panel of GCS principals, who were involved with creating the new policy was also on hand to answer questions from the board. Board of Education members Pat Tillman and Anita Sharpe raised concerns about creating extra work for administrators to review appeals and how the policy would fail to teach students to be accountable for their actions.
Shirley Stipe-Zendle, the principal at Morehead Elementary School, noted that not all appeals will result in a decision reversal. The principal panel also agreed with having a system that helps maintain fairness and equity among the discipline handed out by school administrators.
Board members Linda Welborn, Darlene Garrett, Tillman, and Sharpe voted against the proposed changes while Khem Irby, Diane Bellamy-Small, Winston McGregor, Byron Gladden and Deena Hayes voted in favor.
The full policy can be found at www.gcsnc.com.