A recent proposal to implement an appeals process for short-term suspensions has been met with mixed reaction from parents as well as school board members.
UPDATED 10/31/2019: Guilford County Schools released an FAQ outlining specifics about the proposal.
A proposal to implement an appeals process for short-term suspensions for Guilford County Schools has been met with mixed reaction from parents as well as school board members.
The change would allow for parents and students who object to a short-term suspension decision to appeal to superintendent Sharon Contreras’ designee. If they object to the designee’s decision, they can further appeal directly to Contreras. The superintendent’s decision would be final. The superintendent’s designee would typically be the school support officer, an individual who oversees specific and supervises principals. The school support officers report to the chief of schools, Tony Watlington. An FAQ outlining the changes was posted by the school district on Thursday.
Those who oppose the new policy claim that it will undermine the authority of principals and assistant principals and create unsafe environments in schools. Those in support say it provides more due process for students and parents.
Currently, there is already a system in place to appeal long-term suspensions — that is, suspensions that last more than 10 days. That process involves a formal hearing before the school board and is already spelled out in board policy, according to Chief of Staff Nora Carr.
School board members voted 6-3 during the Oct. 10 meeting to seek public feedback on the proposed policy for the next 30 days.
A popular petition opposing the policy change — which appears to have been started by Cathryn Campbell, an individual who works with hearing impaired children and is employed by Guilford County Schools — alleges that the superintendent has been encouraging principals to “to reduce suspensions and keep students in class.”
Intermediaries claim that Campbell is not the creator of the petition. Campbell could not be reached for comment. As of Oct. 31, the creator of the petition was changed to read “TakeBack OurSchools GCS.” However, in some cached versions of the website, on both mobile and desktop, Cathryn Campbell’s name is still listed as the creator of the petition when pop-ups show up on the screen urging viewers to sign the petition.
The names in the pop-ups match the name of the creators themselves. An email to Change.org support staff confirmed this fact.
Triad City Beat reached out to the current email listed on the petition but has yet to hear back.
According to several studies conducted in the last decade, including a 2018 report by the US Government Accountability Office, black students, boys and students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined in public schools. The 2018 report analyzed data from the US Department of Education from almost every K-12 school in the country and found that the disparities “were widespread and persisted regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty, or type of public school attended.”
Local data for Guilford County Schools reflects similar levels of disproportionate discipline towards black students. According to data from the NC Board of Education, during the 2017-18 school year, there were 6,932 instances of short-term suspensions in the Guilford County Schools. Black students made up 73.6 percent of those suspensions while only making up 40.7 percent of the district’s population. On the other hand, white students made up 11.2 percent of suspensions despite making up 32.5 percent of the district.
Both Watlington and Contreras pushed back against the claim that the goal of the policy is to decrease school suspensions or undermine principals’ authority during the Oct. 10 meeting.
“I don’t think there’s any effort afoot to usurp authority away from principals and to not respect the good work that they’re doing,” Watlington said during the meeting. “But I think all of us can get it wrong sometimes, and I can tell you that happens and there are times where we do have to counsel schools to do something different because it’s not appropriate.”
According to state law, school districts are not required to have appeals processes for short-term suspensions. If enacted, Guilford County Schools would be the first in the state to do so, according to Watlington.
“The state doesn’t require it but it’s up to each board of education,” he said during a phone interview. “Not only is it in their purview to do so but it would be consistent with the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Watlington said that there are also several districts in the rest of the country that have put an appeals process for short-term suspensions in place. One such district is the Tucson Unified School District, the largest school district in Tucson, Ariz.
Walter Bailey, director of student relations for the Tucson school district, said in an email that their district implemented the appeals process at the beginning of this school year and that while they’ve hit a few snags along the way, most parents seem to appreciate the new process. Parents have the opportunity to call Bailey to appeal.
“Most parents are happy that they have an impartial third party that they can appeal short term suspensions to,” he said in an email to Triad City Beat.
“Most parents want someone to listen to their concerns, not to reverse or expunge discipline records.”
So far Bailey said that he’s listened to 18 appeals and has overturned one.
A number of school board members oppose the policy, including District 4 representative Linda Welborn and District 5 representative Darlene Garrett, who argued that the policy would undermine principals’ authority and that due process already exists for students under state and federal law.
“It’s not due process because we are already doing what the Supreme Court says we need to do,” Welborn said in a phone interview on Oct. 25. “I’m all for treating all students the same. The issue is, are children misbehaving? This will put more pressure on people to not deal with children’s behavior. It will be more time consuming and more paperwork. I do not believe that principals want to suspend kids for no reason.”
Garrett echoed Welborn’s statements during the board meeting.
“I cannot support this,” she said. “I’d like to see some real report on what the problems are you’re trying to address with this, because it’s not a due process right.”
District 3 representative Pat Tillman agreed during the board meeting, stating that the proposal was a “solution in search of a problem.”
District 7 representative Byron Gladden urged Contreras and Watlington to come up with a clear procedure for how the new rules would play out. In a phone interview, Gladden said that he wants to see a clear plan before he can support the proposal. He also said he was planning a town hall in early November to hear directly from constituents.
In a phone interview, Watlington said that a group of principals is currently working on creating a procedure for the proposal.
District 1 representative Dianne Bellamy-Small, District 6 representative Khem Irby and at-large board member Winston McGregor all supported the proposal, arguing the need for due process for parents and students.
During the board meeting, several individuals, including McGregor, Contreras and Watlington, referenced a high school student who was negatively affected because of a lack of an appeals process for short-term suspensions. While neither the student nor the parent was ever named, Simonne Ritchy McClinton identified herself in an interview as the parent. She said her son, Jacob, was suspended in April of this year after reports of him “running through the halls inciting terroristic chaos” reached the principal at Grimsley High School, where he was a senior.
In reality, McClinton said that Jacob had put a Nike sports bag over his head to try to make a friend laugh and was seen by a freshman student in the halls who felt intimidated because his face was obscured. Jacob, who had never had any disciplinary actions against him before, was given a 10-day suspension by one of the school’s assistant principals and wasn’t allowed to argue his case, according to McClinton. After hearing her son’s side of the story, McClinton said she reached out to the principal, who was out of town at the time. When she didn’t hear back, she made a post on Facebook, which caused other parents to question the school’s decision to suspend Jacob. Eventually, McClinton reached out to school board members, the superintendent and Watlington before she heard back from the principal who cut Jacob’s suspension short after seven days.
And despite the fact that the situation turned out in McClinton and her son’s favor, she says that many other students might not have the same luck.
“My kid is an advantaged, smart, middle-income white kid,” McClinton said in an interview. “But there are kids out there that are in much worse situations. Those are the kids that you want to hear, the ones that don’t have anyone fighting for them… Not hearing from kids is not the answer.”
Using data from the US Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection, researcher Daniel Losen looked at 2008-09 rates for North Carolina schools and found that black students were suspended at rates much higher than white students for the same infractions. Examples included rates such as eight times as much for cell-phone use, six times as much for dress-code violation, twice as much for disruptive behavior and 10 times as much for displays of affection.
“Most short-term suspension are because of disrespect and noncompliance,” said the Rev. Cardes Brown Jr., president of the Greensboro NAACP. “Well, that’s subjective. At one school you might be suspended for those reasons but at another, you might just say, ‘Don’t do it anymore.’”
Brown and others in the community recently started their own petition supporting the changes.
Contreras argued Brown’s point during the school board meeting.
“Now, most of the time, when there’s an appeal and a parent sits down with the administrator, the administrator will take the time to slowly gather the facts and most times they will pan out just fine,” she said. “But sometimes they will find, ‘Oh, there was more to this story,’ and they will work it out with the parent. But when suspensions are part of the permanent record, the parent should have the right to make sure that everything has been done procedurally, correctly. This is the United States where we value fairness and due process as the foundation of our justice system.”