Suspensions, expulsions to go before hearing panel

Jun. 12, 2013 @ 05:02 PM

Recent revisions to the suspension and expulsion policy in Durham Public Schools will subject all decisions to a hearing panel, if approved by the DPS Board of Education.

The hearing panel would be a third party, three-person panel that would review factual evidence that led to a principal’s decision to expel or long-term suspend a student, then make a recommendation based on the evidence.

Originally, the hearing panel made recommendations directly to the superintendent. Now, this would allow the recommendation to go back to the principal for modification before going to the superintendent and Board of Education for final approval.

The panel also recommends disciplinary action, subject to superintendent and board approval.

Mitigating and aggravating circumstances, including recent disciplinary history, aiding in an investigation or blatant disrespect of authority, would be considered along with whether the student violated the code of student conduct or a local school rule.

Debbie Pitman, DPS assistant superintendent for student, family and community services, presented the revised policy to the board earlier this week.

“We’re trying to shape [this policy] for the board as a response to all of those questions and concerns to revisit the panel authority,” she told board members.

The questions and concerns Pitman referred to were brought up during the board’s May meeting.

Under the current policy, a principal can suspend a student for up to 10 days and can recommend long-term suspension, but only the superintendent can authorize a suspension of more than 10 days but less than the remainder of the year.

The superintendent can only authorize long-term suspension after the student has had the opportunity for a hearing under the current policy.

The district had mostly short-term suspensions this year and 85 percent of the suspensions were one to four days. The remaining 15 percent consisted of five to 10-day suspensions. There is no requirement to review short-term suspensions.

A complaint was filed earlier this year with the federal Department of Education against DPS by the Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Civil Rights Project of UCLA for the disproportionate number of suspensions of black students and students with disabilities.

The complaint alleges that black students are four times as likely as their white peers to be suspended and, among middle school students, it is suggested that more than 37 percent of black males with disabilities are suspended compared to 12.5 percent of white males with disabilities.

DPS suspensions have increased over the past two years and that the racial gap between suspended black females with disabilities and white females with disabilities is 25 percentage points, the complaint alleges.

During the 2012-13 school year, 24 hearing panel decisions were upheld while 21 decisions were modified.

These modifications suggest larger issues, including the undermining of principals, according to some board members.

Board of Education Vice-Chair Minnie Forte-Brown said that “maybe they should go back and revisit the decisions they’ve made,” especially if an outside panel sees evidence and modifies the principal’s original decision.

Supported by federal, state and local funds, if approved by the board, the hearing panels are projected to cost $13,500 if non-DPS employees are used. The projections are based on three panel members at $50 per hour for two hours per hearing.

“It’s an idea we’ve been wrestling with, we just wanted to present this,” Pitman said, noting that money is still tight for the district.

Board member Leigh Bordley suggested that the process be reversed and not employ a costly panel.

“How about three people who work together when these infractions take place to make a recommendation and go to the principal instead of the other way around,” she offered.

“Regardless of whether we add some steps, we still have to have due process at the end,” said Julie Spencer, assistant superintendent for middle schools. “I think the principals understand the magnitude of the student’s educational right that you’re talking about.”

Board member Nancy Cox suggested that it may be helpful to keep principals informed about how comparable schools are addressing behaviors in their schools that risk suspension or expulsion to help address inconsistency.

She also suggested regular reporting of suspensions and expulsions.

“I want to know,” she said. “I want to know every month or every quarter.”

Board members agreed that the information from such reports would be used to identify gaps in services needed for students and staff, including professional development or more social workers to address student needs.

In-school suspension was discussed as an alternative to short or long-term suspension of a student.

Pitman explained that in-school suspensions, or ISS, are preferred because the student still has access to teacher instruction and assistance with school work.

“When they’re in ISS they’re not learning,” Bordley said. “I wish we could do more to make ISS a more robust program.”

Several officials cited that learning does take place in in-school suspension, with some students preferring the one-on-one attention or the quiet time that it affords them.

“ISS is not a place where students hang out or don’t get their work,” Spencer said. “Right now, principals know that it (suspension) is not helping students learn. The more we can keep in school the better.

James Key, assistant superintendent for high schools, said that officials have not been blind to the issue of suspensions throughout the district.

“We’re not perfect, but we’re consistently moving in a more positive direction,” he said.

Forte-Brown suggested a community conversation to openly discuss discipline problems within the district’s schools, as well as the atmosphere within the schools. The open dialogue allows for community input on the issue of suspension and expulsion and helps the community better understand the ramifications of what may appear to be simple decisions.

The community conversations would also allow DPS the opportunity to connect parents to resources to best help their children.

The board of education will have their regular monthly meeting at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 27.