Durham board hears from public on suspension problem

Mar. 10, 2014 @ 10:16 PM

Durham’s problematic suspension rate brought nearly 100 people to the Holton Career & Resource Center Monday to share concerns and possible solutions with the school board.

It also brought an offer from a local graduate chapter of Groove Phi Groove, a social fraternity, to mentor young men in an effort to curb behavioral problems that lead to suspension.

“We are here to volunteer,” said Larry Freeland, president of the graduate chapter and a Durham Public Schools parent. “We ask that you use us.”

More than 20 people signed up to speak and each got three minutes to make their point.

The board did not respond to comments during the hearing. But afterward, School board Chairwoman Heidi Carter told the audience that the suspension rate is something the board takes seriously.

“We’re committed to getting these numbers down and reducing the disparity,” Carter said.

Nearly 3,200 students in grades 9-12 served short-term suspensions in Durham in 2011-12.
Experts say students who are suspended are at greater risk for engaging in criminal activity, lagging behind academically and dropping out of school.

Activist Victoria Petersen drew a round of applause when she talked about the need for better parenting as a way to reduce suspensions.

Petersen said she has been hit and cursed at by students while recently volunteering as a bus mentor.

“Our children are out of control, particularly our black children,” said Petersen, who is black. “There’s no reason why little kids should be cursing and showing you their middle finger.”

Petersen said children learn the behavior from parents. She said she often hears young mothers speak that way to young children.

“What do we think is going to happen when little Johnnie and Susie go to school?” Petersen asked.

A substitute bus driver also complained about the behavior of students who ride his bus.

Herbert Wigfall, who invited parents to ride the bus, said students can cause distractions that render the bus unsafe.

“I ask you to look at the conduct of kids riding the bus,” Wigfall said.

Tanya Exum-Coston shared a three-minute video titled “Be a Man: The Mask We Live In,” which was created by the Representation Project.

The video shows the tough road that boys must navigate on their way to manhood, and the masks they often wear to survive what is often a ruthless and unforgiving culture.

Exum-Coston said the road is made all the more difficult when boys don’t have positive role models.

“What do we do about that?” Exum-Coston said. “How do we address that?”  

Two challengers for school board seats also attended the forum and were among the 20 or so citizens who signed up to comment.

Donald Hughes, who is vying for the District 2 seat, said statistics show that students are more likely to enter the criminal justice system a year after serving a suspension.

He called on the board to end suspension for such minor in fractions as swearing, dress code violations or shooting craps.

DeWarren Langley, who also is running for the District 2 seat, noted that there were few children in attendance.

“If we want to be responsive to the needs of our children, we need to invite them to the table,” Langley said. 

In December, the school district held four “community conversations” to give community members a chance to weigh in on the suspension problem, particularly among black males and students with disabilities.

Citizens attending the “conversations” expressed concern about a lack of consistency with enforcement of discipline policies and questioned the rationale of suspending students

To curb the high suspension rate, citizens suggested that parents back teachers, more black males serve as liaisons and that the district use more restorative justice practices.