Wake County Changes Conduct Code, Eases Suspension Policies

Wake County, North Carolina schools are set for a major overhaul of the punishments they mete out to students. Currently, most serious school offenses in Wake County result in out-of-school suspensions. The change would come through a revision of the Code of Student Conduct where principals are urged to use in-school suspensions for nonviolent offenses.

Out-of-school suspensions for certain nonviolent offenses – unless a student commits the same violation three times during a semester are set to be eliminated by proposed revisions to the Code of Student Conduct. Principals would be encouraged to use alternatives such as in-school suspension to keep these students in school and learning. Keith Sutton, school board chairman expects school board members to discuss the proposal in December and possibly place it into effect in the 2014-15 school year.

“It will significantly reduce the number of suspensions and impact the culture as administrators deal with discipline at the building level,” Keith said Wednesday. “It will be a positive change.”

Wake’s potential changes are part of a national trend, as school systems look for alternatives to out-of-school suspensions for infractions that are considered relatively minor. Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said he’s concerned that the focus on reducing suspensions could come at the expense of students who want to learn in an environment free from disruptions.

“If a kid is disrupting the learning of other students, maybe we need to suspend them,” Michael said. “What we need to have is flexibility. We need to allow adults to exercise their judgment.”

According to T. Keung Hui of newsobserver.com, since 2009, Wake school administrators insist they have been reviewing ways to reduce the number of suspensions. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened an investigation into a complaint filed by the state NAACP that Wake disproportionately suspended minority students. In 2011, Wake overhauled the Code of Student Conduct to divide offenses into five levels, with Level I being considered “less serious”. These level 1 violations should generally result in in-school interventions instead of out-of-school suspensions according to the policy. Those alternatives include peer mediation, in-school suspension, conflict resolution, restitution, community service and loss of privileges such as playing on athletic teams or attending school dances.

However, current policy also says that “out of school suspension should be used as a last resort” for skipping class or being tardy. Instead of stopping all such suspensions, the proposed policy would allow a principal to give an out-of-school suspension for a Level I violation only if the student committed the same violation three times in a semester or refused to participate in one of the alternative interventions.

Wake’s proposal mirrors changes that the New York City public schools made last year after complaints from civil liberties groups about the numbers of students suspended. A good balance between providing safe campuses and properly dealing with the Level I violations is struck by Wake’s proposal according to Keith. A member of NC HEAT, a youth group that has called for the moratorium, Qasimya Wideman, shares the same view as he said that the proposed changes are a step in the right direction.

“It’s important that we stop suspending kids for stupid stuff like violating the dress code or skipping class,” said Qasimya, 18, a senior at Cary High School. “We should all start demanding higher standards before we remove kids from the education environment.”