Wake County School District has not fared well in the public eye when it comes to its treatment of racial minorities. In 2010, the NAACP filed a lawsuit against Wake County for holding a closed meeting during which it redistricted (aka, re-segregated) schools – reversing a longstanding attempt to diversify. The lawsuit also cites the district for failing “to enact significant policies to address the disparate racial impact of student disciplinary policies and procedures.” In 2014, Legal Aid of North Carolina named Wake County School District and Wake County Police Department in a lawsuit for repeatedly violating the rights of Black students and students with disabilities.
Then, in March 2015, an Op-Ed in The News and Observer by two members of the Advisory Board of Youth Justice singled out Wake County as a school-to-prison pipeline.
Something’s got to give. On Monday, May 11th, the Wake County School Board presented its plan of action for its problematic record of suspension and racial inequality.
The Equitable Discipline Practices Plan of Action begins with a rundown of the most recent statistics for the county from the 2013-14 school year. Some improvements can be seen, such as a 23% reduction in the number of suspensions. Other areas show a vital need for further action. For example, while Black students make up 25% of the student population, these students represent 62% of the students who were suspended. By comparison, White students comprise 49% of the student body but only 18% of those who were suspended. That means that, if a Wake County student is Black, they are more than three times as likely to be suspended than a White student.
Also of concern, the presentation did not account for what the racial disparities were for long-term suspension, which has a more significant impact on the life of a student.
While these statistics cause alarm, it is worth pointing out that this statistic is only slightly worse than the state average, where 26% of students are Black/African American and yet comprise 58% of those who received disciplinary action.
It’s promising that the school board plans to take such comprehensive steps towards improving both its student performance and its reputation. “We need to have our students in school,” Brenda Elliot, assistant superintendent for student support services told The News and Observer.
The plan focuses on training of teachers and staff to handle individual situations with students with an eye toward better outcomes. “We want to make sure our teachers have a skillset of different resources and strategies that they can try to interrupt inappropriate behavior in the classroom and those strategies are used before a student would be sent to the office,” Elliot said.
And the administrators do not shy away from the deliberate nature of the plan: it is designed to address disparities when it comes to disciplinary action. Trainings for administrators, teachers, and staff are outlined, as well as the introduction of programs for student mediation and counseling. The plan calls for analysis of trends regarding disciplinary actions, trying to determine the some of the root causes of the disparities. Finally, a report of the outcomes will be made, in the form of a district wide report card following up on how effective the plan actually is.
While this program is a step in the right direction, the presentation on Monday reminded the audience that these are recommendations rather than mandates, which means that the schools do not have to engage in the program. Moreover, while the presentation of the plan states that “we are more limited by our thinking than our resources,” it would be nice if some more resources were allocated toward helping programs like these get off the ground. Perhaps we could use some of the $400 billion dollar budget surplus to fund education programs?
Melissa Geil is a freelance writer and English teacher. Although originally from New York, she moved to North Carolina the first time for college (go Tar Heels), and now she is back to stay. She enjoys reading, hiking, and gallivanting around the triangle with her family.