Step one done, but now what?
The first step to solving any problem is acknowledging you have one in the first place. When it comes to the problem of disproportionately high suspension rates for black students and students with disabilities, Durham Public Schools has checked off step one. In response to community concerns and an investigation by the federal Office for Civil Rights, DPS has acknowledged again and again that its disproportionate suspension rates are unacceptable. But the most pressing question facing DPS at this point is, “Now what?”
DPS’s answer thus far has been to hold a series of “community conversations” on suspension to gather input on the district’s discipline policies and practices. Three of the meetings have already occurred (on Dec. 7, 9 and 10) and one more is scheduled for 6:30 to 8 p.m. Monday at White Rock Baptist Church. While these meetings are laudable attempts to solicit community input, the format and location of the meetings sheds light on DPS’s lack of commitment to meaningful community engagement.
For example, at the meetings held so far, there was no opportunity for attendees to ask questions publicly, even though DPS representatives were present, including members of the Board of Education and the superintendent. Similarly, attendees were not given a chance to share their individual experiences and concerns with the larger group, a critical step in any community-based restorative or reconciliation process.
Rather, the format of the meetings required attendees to break into groups to answer three narrowly prescribed, pre-determined questions. Discussion was limited to the questions and attendees had to vote on the “best” two answers. Less than 15 minutes was dedicated to information on DPS’s high suspension rates and current efforts to prevent suspension and develop alternatives. No information was given on the multitude of research-based strategies, such as restorative justice programs or district-wide implementation of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, which have proven effective in reducing suspensions in other districts and could be implemented in DPS.
While a framework for the meetings is necessary and brainstorming solutions is important, the current inflexible format is not conducive to true community engagement. DPS is asking for fixes without allowing the community to help fully define the problem and the process by which that problem should be solved. DPS is asking the community for answers without any efforts to educate them on the broad range of possible solutions.
DPS has also failed in making the meetings accessible to the parents and students who are harmed most by the district's discriminatory discipline practices. With the exception of next Monday's meeting, which was added at the last second, none of the meetings are located in the communities in which students most affected by suspension live. There is limited public transportation to at least one of the venues (Northern High School). Further, some parents may feel intimidated to voice their concerns at meetings held by DPS on DPS territory.
Hopefully, DPS observed these same problems and plans to revise its process to encourage more meaningful community participation. For example, DPS could partner with local community organizations that work with and for the students most affected by suspension to co-sponsor a series of events in early 2014. Ideally, these events would allow more time and flexibility for group discussion than the current rigid format. There should also be time set aside to relay concerns, experiences and questions directly and publicly to DPS leadership. DPS could also increase participation by developing ways for people to give input even if they are unable to attend one of the events: for example, by setting up a telephone hotline, sending home paper surveys to parents, and setting up an online survey.
In DPS, black students are more than four times as likely to be suspended as white students. DPS knows this is a problem, but to solve that problem, the district must develop a process that is responsive to what the community wants and needs, rather than asking the community to fit its mold.