Durham Public Schools wanted to reduce suspensions. Instead they’re soaring

Durham Public Schools saw a dramatic increase in suspensions at some of its schools during the 2016-17 school year.
Durham Public Schools saw a dramatic increase in suspensions at some of its schools during the 2016-17 school year.

Principals at Durham Public Schools handed down 42 percent more short-term suspensions during the 2016-17 school year than they did the previous year. At some schools suspensions more than doubled.

The number of short-term suspensions, those lasting fewer than 10 days, increased for all but six of the school district’s 23 middle and high schools. Meanwhile 17 of 30 elementary schools saw increases. In all, 34 of 53 schools saw more suspensions.

But it was in the high schools where the increases were most dramatic.

At Northern High School, for example, there were 621 short-term suspensions last school year, which was 419 more than the 202 suspensions the previous year — a 207 percent increase, according to a preliminary suspension report now posted on the district’s website.

The 621 suspensions were given to 276 students, the equivalent of 18 percent of the school’s students.

And at Southern High School of Energy and Sustainability, short-term suspensions increased 135 percent, with the principal handing down 936 suspensions, which is 539 more than the 397 the previous year. The 936 suspensions were given to 360 different students, which was a little more than 24 percent of the school’s student body.

These increases come at a time when principals and other administrators are supposed to be going the extra mile to avoid kicking students out of school.

A major revamp of the district's Code of Student Conduct that took effect during the 2016-17 school year is supposed to give principals more alternatives to suspensions.

A 47-member task force of school officials, parents, juvenile justice experts, church leaders and mental health advocates co-chaired by Superior Court Judge Elaine O’Neal and Elizabeth Shearer, DPS’ executive director of student support services, worked on revisions to the code for a year.

But despite that work, suspensions have increased at many schools even though the revised code no longer mandates them for offenses such as plagiarism, dress-code violations, minor disruptive behavior or possession of cell phones or tablets such as iPads.

“This is not quick fix, this is about shifting adults’ hearts and minds in the way they do business,” said Shearer, also a former DPS principal. “It’s a commitment that our board and the task force has made, that we have to be in this for the long haul and quick magical fixes aren’t going to happen.”

Last school year, the first under the revised code, students were hit with 5,520 short-term suspensions, which is 1,634 more suspensions than the 3,886 handed down during the 2015-16 school year.

The 5,520 suspensions were given to 2,849 students, which was about 8.4 percent of the district's 33,737 students last year.

Long-term suspensions, those lasting 10 or more days, also jumped 33 percent, with 88 long-term suspensions being handed down during the 2016-17 school year compared to 66 the previous year.

Mental health ‘huge’

Shearer said the behavior issues are often related to mental health and trauma students have experienced away from school.

“Mental health is a huge issue,” Shearer said. “To bring that with them, they exhibit behaviors that are inappropriate, unacceptable, not safe, but they are the results of some very significant events and experiences in their lives. The mental health is huge.”

Still, Debbie Pitman, the district’s assistant superintendent of student services, said district leaders hoped for better results in the first year operating under the new code.

“When the data first came out, we were surprised,” Pitman said. “We were hopeful that the year-one implementation would show continue reductions because we have been declining in our suspensions over the past several years. We had to pause and look at what the statistic was really telling us, and that’s when we learned that 24 schools did continue that downward trajectory.”

DPS’ short-term suspensions decreased 13.2 percent for the 2015-16 school year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction’s 2015-16 Consolidated Data Report.

Different yardsticks?

While the number of suspensions increased for 34 schools, it’s important to note that not all increases are created equal. Early College High School, for example, saw its short-term suspension rate increase by two. It had no suspensions the previous year.

The difference in the number of suspensions at schools across the district varies greatly, particularly in the elementary schools ranks where they range from zero at Southwest, Morehead Montessori and Forest View elementary schools to a high of 139 at C.C. Spaulding.

That wide range makes it difficult to believe that all principals are using the same yardstick to determine when to pull the trigger on suspensions.

“I see tremendous disparities in schools and that's problematic for me,” said School board member Matt Sears.

Although suspensions have been decreasing in recent years, DPS has long, difficult history around the subject.

Several years ago, Advocates for Children's Services project of Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project of UCLA filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, against DPS, contending the school district overuses out-of-school suspension, which disproportionately harms black students and students with disabilities.

Data for the 2015-16 school year showed that 81.5 percent of the district’s short-term suspensions were received by black students, even though they make up 46.7 percent of the student population.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645