A Durham mom went with her son to in-school suspension. She wasn’t happy with what she saw.

Durham Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carborro City Schools are both struggling to reduce suspensions among black students.
Durham Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carborro City Schools are both struggling to reduce suspensions among black students.

A Durham mother’s Facebook post about her son’s in-school suspension went viral Thursday, prompting discussions about fair punishment and the school-to prison-pipeline.

When the Rev. Fatimah Salleh’s 16-year-old son came home from high school last spring complaining about his day spent isolated from most of his peers, she assumed he was exaggerating. He had been sent to in-school suspension for “horseplay,” and Salleh wanted him to take responsibility for his actions.

She trusted the teachers and administrators at Durham School of the Arts, one of the top-ranked schools in the Durham district, were disciplining her son fairly.

Salleh decided to go to school with her son when he was sentenced to two more days of punishment for laughing. She intended to spend a few hours sitting in silence to prove that it wasn’t that bad.

“I was confident in the school,” Salleh said. “I wanted to counter his complaints.”

But Salleh stayed seven hours, and returned on Monday for another seven.

She said she was surprised that her son didn’t receive a full day of education, and she took note of the demographics: Nine of the 11 students in in-school suspension were students of color, and eight were boys.

Meanwhile, girls outnumber boys Durham School of the Arts, she said, and 31.2 percent of students are African-American.

Students weren’t allowed to speak, sleep, eat, drink or use their cellphones, and any infraction could result in more suspension time, Salleh said.

Students were supposed to do classwork, but Salleh said her son received materials from only three of his seven classes.

“That means four, or a majority of his teachers, sent nothing, which leaves my child with less than half a day of schoolwork,” she wrote in her Facebook post.

Two other students didn’t receive any schoolwork at all, she said.

Salleh, who has four children, said she teaches her kids to take responsibility when they are wrong.

“As black and brown children, they don’t have room to make mistakes,” she said.

But in this case, Salleh felt the punishment her son received was more than he deserved.

Her social media post has received hundreds of comments and shares. While some people questioned Salleh’s actions, most were supportive.

Salleh said she was hesitant to share her story at all, partly out of respect for the school. But she changed her mind when another of her sons was given in-school suspension.

“The school-to-prison pipeline is real. I felt a lot of its impact in that room,” Salleh said, recalling her experience last spring. “The language of the prison industrial complex was used very flippantly in that setting.”

Students were told they deserved their punishment, she said. An administrator visiting the room was jokingly referred to as the warden.

“I couldn’t turn a blind eye,” Salleh said.

Mike Lee, chairman of the Durham Public Schools board, said students get caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline when they get behind in class.

“A lot of that derives from out-of-school suspensions of black and brown students,” Lee said.

Black students across North Carolina are suspended at nearly four times the rate of white students. In Durham, a black student is 9.7 times more likely than a white student to receive a short-term suspension, according to the Racial Equity Report Card for 2019. (This is an updated figure since the original story was reported.)

The school board has been working to reduce out-of-school suspension rates for several years, and in-school suspension was meant to allow students who get in trouble to continue learning.

“Generally, there is still work being done, and the student isn’t falling behind,” Lee said. “What was reported in that post was disheartening.”

As a father of three students in Durham public schools, Lee said he is personally invested in improving disciplinary programs, and he is concerned about in-school suspension being “weaponized.”

“This parent said her son got ISS because he was horsing around. In high school, you’re supposed to be horsing around,” Lee said, adding that the school’s administration is opening an investigation into the issue.

Part of the school board’s five-year strategic plan is to establish restorative justice in schools. As part of the process, counselors help students deal with underlying causes of behaviors and take responsibility for their actions.

“It sends the message that we’re not just leaving you down here, we’re here for you,” Lee said.

Lee said he believes the school district will fewer suspensions of minority students as early as next year.

“But we’ve still got a long way to go,” he said.

Lee added: “This isn’t a Durham problem. This isn’t a public schools problem. But I believe Durham can be a leader in this.”

Salleh’s older son is now a student at Southern High School, where he has not been suspended. Salleh was nervous about letting her son leave such a highly rated school, but she wanted to find a situation where he could flourish.

“When I was praying, it came to me that I needed to validate him and help him listen to himself,” Sallah said. “He is a happier student and seeing that he can make decisions for himself.”

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Shelbi Polk reports on K-12 education in Durham and Orange Counties for the News & Observer. She attended Texas A&M University and followed the crowds to Raleigh in 2018.