Durham is reducing school suspensions. So why aren’t school board members happier?

A new report shows fewer suspensions being handed out in the Durham Public School, but school board members remain concerned about who’s getting them.

In-school suspension and referrals to the district’s restorative practice center fell slightly, from 7,926 in school year 2017-18 to 7,746 in 2018-19.

Short term suspensions (no more than 10 days), however, dropped from 4,251 in 2017-18 to 2,989 in 2018-19.

Long-term suspensions were down from 64 in 2017-18 to 46 in 2018-19.

The staff credited the district’s emphasis on restorative practices in recent years for the decreases. Restorative practices advocate mediation and conflict resolution over punishment by having the trespasser make amends and take responsibility for his or her actions.

Racial disparities

Despite the progress, the staff and the board identified areas of concern, including the ongoing disproportionate number of black males being disciplined.

Although the number of referrals of black males dropped from 2017-18 to 2018-19, 19.31% of black males in the district faced discipline in 2018-19, as compared with 10.29% of all students.

Black females were slightly more likely than the average student to face discipline last school year, with that percentage at 11.74%.

Also, students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined, with 14.56% facing referrals last school year.

In all those cases, though, that percentage represents a drop from 2017-18.

“We still have much work to do,” board member Minnie Forte-Brown said, referencing the number of black males who faced discipline referrals.

“I was just going to echo that we have a lot of work to do,” board member Bettina Umstead said, “because 20%, or 19.3% is 1 out of 5, and that’s just a really high number.”

Superintendent Pascal Mubenga noted that if 19% of black males faced discipline last year, 81%, the vast majority, did not.

Middle school concerns

Board members also expressed concern about middle school, where 24.29 percent of black males and 22.03% of students with disabilities were disciplined.

More than 13% of all middle school students were disciplined, as compared with 6.17% of all district students.

The most common reason for discipline across the district last school year was insubordination, followed by truancy, disruptive behavior, fighting and inappropriate language or disrespect.

Forte-Brown noted that some of those infractions, such as disrespect could be subjective and hard to define.

She added that staff should track teachers’ and administrators’ referrals and counsel “those who have more than we care to have.”

Board member Steve Unruhe said the staff might not be giving itself enough credit in its presentation: “You could have used those same numbers and said that we have a 25 percent drop in our suspension rate, and that would be a headline. … This progress is really outstanding.”

Unruhe also said there was a fear five or six years ago that the district would tackle the discipline problem by keeping disruptive students in the classroom, achieving a decrease in suspensions by making the schools less safe. Evidence from students and faculty shows, he said, that that is not happening.

Mubenga commended his staff for the drop.

“The fact that we are keeping those babies in the learning environment, that’s a big deal,” he said. “Those babies are not on the street getting in trouble. I care less about those numbers than the fact that they are in school, learning.”

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