UPDATED (9/21, 3:45 p.m.): This story was updated to include a statement from Brent Campbell, the chief communications and external relations officer for WS/FCS, as well as a quote from the district Superintendent Tricia McManus.
On Wednesday afternoon, the US Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced that it had resolved a compliance review of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School district that dates back from 2010.
According to its findings, the OCR reported that the school district discriminated against Black students by disciplining them more frequently and more harshly than white students for the same infractions.
This is not the first time the school district has been investigated by the OCR.
In 2019, the federal office opened an investigation after a complaint was filed on behalf of students at Ashley Elementary School. In that instance, the complaint alleged that the school district “intentionally discriminated against [B]lack and Hispanic students in its response to concerns about mold at the school,” as reported by TCB. In response, the school board put in a new HVAC system while the city considered selling city-owned property to rebuild the school. In 2022, the school board purchased a little more than three tracts of land in East Winston-Salem to build a new school. However, construction of a new Ashley Elementary has yet to be approved, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.
In the report released this week, the OCR found that as recently as the 2022-23 school year, Black students were more likely than white students to be suspended for their first offense, were suspended at higher rates for first-time offenses and were suspended for longer periods than white students on average for fighting offenses.
Data reported by the school district reflected the findings by OCR.
According to the district, during the 2022-23 school year, Black students received 57.2 percent of in-school or out-of-school suspensions while white students received 14.2 percent. During that school year, Black students made up 29 percent of the population while white students made up 34 percent.
The OCR’s report also states that part of the reason for the disparities could be attributed to the fact that the district’s “discipline code in effect prior to 2022 did not clearly define some of the most common offenses.”
As part of the investigation, the school district agreed to take the following steps to fix the issues:
- Review its current discipline code to determine if further revisions are necessary.
- Continue to train administrators and staff on the discipline code.
- Collect complete and accurate data on all disciplinary referrals.
- Analyze its current discipline data for evidence of unlawful discrimination or failure to comply with the discipline code.
- Put in place corrective actions to address any concerns it identifies through its data analysis.
- Coordinate with local law enforcement agencies on School Resource Officer data collection, training, and monitoring.
- Conduct an assessment, with consideration of revision, of alternative school programs for students who commit disciplinary violations to determine program effectiveness as well as assess whether referrals to these programs are consistent with the district discipline code.
- Provide information on its discipline policies for students and families. And,
- Submit to OCR annual reports regarding the effectiveness of WS/FCS’s efforts for OCR review and assessment.
In response to the OCR’s compliance review, Brent Campbell, the chief communications and external relations officer for WS/FCS told TCB via email that since the review was initiated in 2010, the district has implemented a new Code of Character, Conduct, and Support, has “better defined disciplinary actions, transparent data sets, an Office of Equity, an Executive Director of Equity, and other steps that clearly outline discipline practices.”
In response to the review, Superintendent Tricia McManus acknowledged the district’s past racial disparities while noting the improvements they have made.
“Discipline disparities still exist, but if we hadn’t been moving in the right direction in the past several years, this review would not have been resolved,” she said in a statement. “This is a positive step in justifying the work we are already doing because it brings resolution and shows we have taken this data seriously. It has been and remains a priority to reduce those discipline disparities to keep our students in school learning so we can close opportunity gaps that lead to achievement gaps. Until all racial data disparities are eliminated, we will stay the course with this very important work.”
While the issues within the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School system are striking, they are not isolated issues. According to reporting by NC Newsline, Black students in NC are suspended from schools at four times the rate of white students.
Some actions that other school districts investigated by the OCR have taken include:
- Assessing and addressing root causes for racial disparities in discipline
- Requiring staff to use alternative corrective measures before referring students for discipline
- Regularly training police officers in schools
An expert interviewed for the NC Newsline piece had these pieces to add:
- Recognizing the cultural differences of students served
- Employing a social worker at each school
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