How Durham schools are reducing suspensions, and who still gets the most of them

Last year, a high school student in Durham who talked back to a teacher loudly enough might have ended up sitting in a classroom for a day, ideally but maybe not always with enough school work to keep busy.

But Durham Public Schools is changing how it responds to students’ behavior.

Instead of in-school suspensions, the district is emphasizing restorative-justice practices, which lead students through questions to help them see how their actions affect themselves and others.

“The questions allow them to take responsibility without being punitive, issuing blame or inciting shame,” said Laverne Mattocks-Perry, senior executive director of Student Support Services.

A new report shows it’s having an impact.

Durham’s traditional public schools are reducing disciplinary action across the board, although black and Latino students remain more likely than white students to be disciplined.

Low-level offenses

DPS has used In-school suspensions for low-level offenses, like repeated tardiness, disrespect or rowdiness. Students were removed from the classroom, but only as far away as a dedicated suspension room, where they were expected to keep up with the work being done in class.

Students can still be removed from class under restorative justice, but the district requires a process for getting them their class work, a more inviting physical set up, some type of student support, the chance to talk about their actions, and positive expectations posted visibly in the room.

Last school year, there were 4,448 in-school suspensions in the first semester.

This school year, there were 3,055 incidents in the first semester that led to a referral to a restorative practice center.

The changeover hasn’t been seamless.

Earlier this semester the Rev. Fatimah Salleh, who has had two sons at Durham School of the Arts, posted on Facebook about her oldest son’s experience with in-school suspension. The post went viral, eliciting thousands of comments and shares from students, parents and even teachers who had similar experiences.

Before the official transition to restorative justice, Salleh’s oldest son was given in-school suspension for “horseplay,” and then earned another day for laughing during the initial punishment. His mother didn’t believe him when he described a full day of silence, so she went with him. Her son received classwork from only three of his seven classes and wasn’t allowed to do much else but sit there.

This year, Salleh’s younger son was referred to the restorative practice center at DSA, but Salleh says his experience was almost exactly the same as his older brother’s time in in-school suspension.

Mattocks-Perry said that’s part of the transition.

“We do not have in-school suspension in Durham Public Schools,” she said. “Now, what I will tell you is that all these changes, including the name change, will take some time.”

All DPS schools are expected to be living up to restorative-justice standards, and Mattocks-Perry said Salleh’s story actually helped the district look at how the changes were playing out.

“Some schools are farther along than others, and some need more support,” Mattocks-Perry said. “After twenty years of doing things one way, it takes time to turn the aircraft carrier around, which is essentially what schools are.”

Efforts to reach DSA administrators for comment were unsuccessful.

Suspensions falling


Fall 2017

Fall 2018





Even with restorative alternatives, DPS can still suspend students for more serious offenses.

Short-term, out-of-school suspensions run one to 10 days.

Long-term, out-of-school suspensions, issued by the superintendent at a principal’s request, can last anywhere from 11 days to a full school year.

But even here the district is making changes.

Short-term suspensions fell by more than half over the past year. There were 2,696 short-term suspensions in the fall of 2017 versus 1,263 in the fall of 2018.

Long-term suspensions also dropped dramatically, from 44 in the fall of 2017 to 14 in the fall of 2018.

Both short- and long-term suspensions were at a five-year low in the first semester of 2018-19. Mattocks-Perry attributes these changes to restorative-justice practices.

“People have new tools,” she said.

“There are opportunities to build relationships, and it gives black and brown students the same benefit of the doubt that the research shows we’ve been giving to white students for years,” Mattocks-Perry said. “And that is to stop and ask questions in a way that is supportive and holds them accountable. “

Some students are asking for sessions and other students who have never been sent to a restorative justice center are learning the practices from their peers, she said.

“Teaching students about behavior, and about social and emotional wellness, does not have to be painful,” she said.

Racial disparities

Even with restorative practices, black male students, who saw the largest decrease in disciplinary incidents of any group of students, remain far more likely than their peers to face disciplinary action.

This year’s Racial Equity Report Card, produced by the Durham nonprofit Youth Justice Project, showed black students in DPS were 9.7 times more likely than white students to receive a short term suspension in the 2016-17 school year.

In the fall of last school year, 13.2 percent of black male students were sent to in-school suspension. This past fall 9.9 percent were sent to a restorative-justice program. Black female students, Latino students and students with disabilities also saw less disciplinary action.

By comparison, in the fall of last school year, 2.3 percent of white males got in-school suspension, while this past fall 2.7 percent were sent to restorative justice programs. The percentage of white female students was virtually unchanged at about 1 percent both years.

Short-term suspension rates were also reduced, and black male students again saw the largest decrease in suspension rates.

About 4.7 percent of students were given short-term suspensions in the fall of last school year versus 2.6 percent this past fall.

The percentage of black male students suspended fell from 10.5 percent to 5.9 percent. The percentage of white male students suspended fell from 1.8 percent to 1.06 percent.

“We recognize that there’s still that disproportionality,” Mattocks-Perry said. “It’s not a problem that’s unique to Durham Public Schools, but it is a problem that we don’t think is acceptable.”

Mattocks-Perry said the district has a three-pronged approach to tackling it. It is emphasizing equity leadership, ensuring all students have the benefit of the doubt through restorative practices, and working to emphasize culturally relevant teaching practices.

“We notice that [with restorative justice] there are more students in the classrooms,” she said. “But of the students who are being called down or removed, they continue to be black males and some of our Latino male students.”

Systemic change

Ronda Taylor Bullock is the director of Durham-based nonprofit we are, an acronym for working to extend anti-racist education.

Taylo Bullock says the district needs to look into which schools and teachers have highest rates of disciplinary action and why.

But she is cautiously optimistic.

“I hope to see black and brown children receiving an education and having access to schools that support their whole selves, their academic selves, their social and emotional selves, and that are culturally responsive to their needs,” Taylor Bullock said.

“And I believe that when their schools are in that place, you’ll see disruptive behaviors go down, you’ll see suspension numbers go down, and hopefully you’ll see a community that is responsive to the needs of particularly the black and brown kids,” she said. “And I hope that translates into academic achievement for them as well.”

Speaking to the school board last week, Deputy Superintendent Nakia Hardy said creating an equitable education system requires emphasizing systemic change in addition to personal responsibility.

“Without the implementation of our systemic changes, we will not be able to dismantle the structural racism that exists,” Hardy said.

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