Community weighs in on DPS suspensions

Dec. 17, 2013 @ 09:45 AM

The community on Monday night was more than ready to give the Durham Public Schools a piece of its collective mind with regards to the disproportionate number of black and disabled students being suspended.

At White Rock Baptist Church, community members, parents and Durham Public Schools staff gathered to for the fourth conversation on student discipline and suspensions within the district.

“The purpose of these discussions is for the school district to listen,” said school board member Minnie Forte-Brown. “We’re looking forward to a very open, very honest conversation. We’re coming to you for solutions and strategies to better serve our children.”

Eight people sat at each table with two moderators. With time allotted for discussion of four questions, the responses were discussed among those at the table then recorded by one of the moderators.

Debbie Pitman, of student, family and community services for DPS, said that “for the most part, we’re under the state (suspension) rate (for black students) which is good, but we still have work to do.”

Pitman explained that the district is 51 percent black students with suspensions most frequently resulting from fighting, disorderly conduct, non-compliance with school rules, truancy and verbal abuse of staff.

Participants were asked four questions: What is working in DPS with student discipline policy and practice? What are your concerns with student discipline policy and practice? What strategies can you recommend to reduce suspensions?  How can the community assist in this effort?

For each question, several responses continued to reappear, including support of positive behavior, intervention and support, mentoring, the district’s willingness to listen, community forums and a strong value on relationships.

Concerns about student discipline ranged from a lack of consistency with the enforcement of district policies and questions over the rationale of suspending students to having culturally responsive teaching and parents backing the teachers as partners.

The strategies suggested for reducing suspensions included programs to help parents help their children and having outside evaluation of the policies and processes with community involvement and counselor follow-up after suspensions and more direct communication between teachers and parents.

Having more black males act as liaisons with the targeted groups and using more restorative justice practices rather punitive practices were among the community suggestions on how they could directly help with the issue.

DPS is still awaiting word from the Office of Civil Rights about a complaint filed against them for the number of black and disabled students who have been suspended. A DPS representative said that the OCR is still compiling information.

Board Chairwoman Heidi Carter said that the next step is a summary of the information collected from the four conversations presented to the board, with that information informing the next step.

“The board is committed to reducing out of school suspensions and fixing the lopsided ratios we know we have,” Carter said. “The participation in this forum and the previous forums indicate how much our community cares about our children and the amount of DPS employees shows that we’re committed to reducing our number of out of school suspensions.”

Donald Hughes, a former DPS student and facilitator at one of the table discussions, said that as a student he could remember suspensions being a point of contention.

“This is something our community has dealt with for a long time,” said Hughes. “But this time the system seems to be more committed than ever to addressing this issue. The take-away from this is the candidness expressed here. You can’t minimize that.”

Primula Lane works with a day treatment facility and said that she “sees these things happen and I’m not in a school on a regular basis.”

“I do think it (community conversation) was useful,” Lane said. “Everybody has the same general idea of what needs to be done. Hopefully, this is a step in the right direction.”