The Guilford County school board passed a proposal that formalizes a process for parents and students to appeal short-term suspensions.

The Guilford County school board voted 5-4 on Tuesday evening to allow for parents and students to appeal short-term suspensions in the school district.

The decision, which has been met with both fierce opposition as well as steadfast support, allows parents and students to appeal decisions by assistant principals or principals to the principal’s supervisor or the school support officer, and then appeal that decision to the superintendent’s designee. If parents and students wish to appeal further, they can take their case all the way up to the superintendent level, although those cases will be rare, according to the chief of schools, Tony Watlington.

According to details outlined by the school district, parents and students can appeal if the short-term suspension (10 days or less) was issued in error; based on unsubstantiated allegations or a personal conclusion; in violation of the student’s rights under the individuals with disabilities act; or was in violation or inconsistent with the school board’s Code of Conduct.

Dozens of speakers and supporters packed the school board meeting room on Tuesday, resulting in an overflow crowd and a line out the door before the meeting had even started.

The proposal was first voted on during the Oct. 10 school-board meeting when board members voted 6-3 to seek public comment on the policy for 30 days. During that period, the district received more than 100 messages expressing both support and opposition to the changes. In other public forums, parents and community members started opposing petitions which garnered thousands of signatures.

During Tuesday’s board meeting, 37 speakers talked during the public comments portion to either support or oppose the proposal. Of the 37 who spoke about the proposal, a majority — 29 speakers — spoke out in favor of the changes.

A number of public officials including High Point city council-elect members Michael Holmes and Tyrone Johnson spoke in favor of the proposal. Guilford County commissioner Skip Alston, former school board member Dot Kearns and state house representative Amos Quick III all supported the changes as well.

Newly elected High Point city council member Michael Holmes spoke in favor of the proposed changes during Tuesday’s Guilford County school board meeting (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

John Moyle of Greensboro pointed out a worry regarding safety in schools that many of those opposing the proposal mentioned during the public comment period.

“This has the potential to have a significant effect on students,” Moyle said. “Any change we make seems to imply the chance for some risks. If we’re gonna move schools forward, we’re gonna have to make change. I don’t think that the simple fact that there are risks associated with this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pass it. I think the risks in this case are small.”

Many of the speakers in support of the appeals process emphasized the need for due process for students and pointed out the racial disparities of discipline in schools.

UNCG professor Crystal Dixon spoke about the disparities found in discipline within the school district based on race and pointed out that black students missed an average of six days on average based on data from 2017, while white students missed four.

“Today, we have the collective opportunity to mitigate this disparity and the power to empower all students to appeal suspension decisions,” Dixon said.

“All parents should have the right to protect their child’s future if they feel like they were wrongly disciplined. Today, we have an opportunity to serve as a statewide example of what accountability looks like.”

Below is data from the 2017-2018 school year for the Guilford County school district.

By passing the new changes, Guilford County Schools became the first public school district in the state to have an appeals process for short-term suspensions. Appeals for long-term suspensions already exist in the district.

Before the board voted on the measure, a panel of school principals who were involved with creating the new procedure for the changes were brought to the dais to answer any questions that board members might have.

Board member T. Dianne Bellamy-Small simply asked, “Will this policy help you make clearer decisions?” Board member Linda Welborn asked about the potential for an increase in workload for principals.

Shirley Stipe-Zendle, the principal at Morehead Elementary School cited work that she did for her dissertation that involved studying more than 5,000 calls from parents to schools. She said that what she found was that more often than not, parents just wanted someone to listen to them.

“All calls would not result in appeals,” Stipe-Zendle said at the board meeting. “As far as more work, your best principals are already doing the work on the front end…. We didn’t find that principals are resisting this.”

Mike Hettenbach, the principal at Southwest Guilford High School spoke about the need for the change to maintain accountability amongst principals like himself.

“I enjoy being called out if they think I’m wrong,” he said.

“That’s a great healthy conversation and I feel like I’ve got a great relationship with my community. I think that’s what it’s about and I think they’ll trust you more in the long run.”

Board member Pat Tillman expressed concern that there is already due process in the schools and that this new policy would add extra work for school administrators. While some principals do have an informal appeals process at their schools, board members who supported the measure such as Khem Irby and Bellamy-Small cited the need for a formal process so that all parents could access the same level of transparency.

When asked by Tillman how often principals have reversed decisions because of appeals, Shayla Savage, the principal at Union Hill Elementary, responded that it is inevitable because principals are human.

“We are human,” she said. “We make lots of mistakes. We have good days, we have bad days…. When parents know that you do what’s in the best interest of their child, they’re gonna always give you the benefit of the doubt. When I get it wrong, I want to make it right because ultimately I want to make sure that I’m not doing anything that’s gonna negatively impact a child’s life.”

In the end, board members Pat Tillman, Linda Welborn, Darlene Garrett and Anita Sharpe voted against the proposed changes while Khem Irby, Diane Bellamy-Small, Winston McGregor, Byron Gladden and Deena Hayes voted in favor.

Find details about the proposal here and here.

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