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Community group asks to end suspensions for New Hanover's youngest students, NHCS says it's complicated

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Peter Rawitsch
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Peter Rawitsch and Veronica McLaurin-Brown and their group have put up 10 billboards around town to advocate for their cause.

New Hanover County Schools is taking a closer look at school suspensions. This comes after a local advocacy group, Love Our Children, pushed the district to eliminate suspensions for 4 to 7-year-olds, except in extreme circumstances.

Reducing the use of suspension has been part of the New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) strategic plan for some time, but administrators say it's more complicated than just prohibiting suspensions.

Love Our Children

Peter Rawitsch, a retired educator with 42 years of experience as an elementary school teacher in New Hampshire and New York, has recently become politically active in the local group Love Our Children. The organization is asking for one line to be added to the current NHCS discipline policy.

“The sentence would be that suspension will not be used as a consequence for four or five, six and seven-year-olds, except in the case of possession of drugs or a gun or a violent assault, and they can keep the rest of the policy intact,” said Rawitsch.

Rawitsch has been working alongside Veronica McLaurin-Brown, a 34-year veteran of New Hanover County Schools. She became an educator in Wilmington in 1973 and has worked at schools like Roland Grise, Mary C. Williams, J.C. Roe Center, and New Hanover High School.

She eventually became an ‘observer evaluator’ of teachers, which she said, “was the more eye-opening part of my life in terms of understanding variations in expectations for children, and how we treat children.”

Also during her tenure within the district, she was named the Special Assistant to the Superintendent for ‘Eliminating the Achievement Gap.’

McLaurin-Brown left the school district in 2006-2007. She said needed to take care of her mom who had Alzheimer’s — and also cited her experience on the redistricting committee as another reason for leaving.

She remembered when she was asked to stand up at a school meeting to be recognized as part of the committee that advised the district on a redistricting plan, the one that endorsed the neighborhood schools model:

“And so we stood up. But I looked at the faces of all the people, and I thought they think that I support something about that plan when I support nothing about that plan. And I just kind of decided I don't want to be part of this,” said McLaurin-Brown.

Back in May 2020, Rawitsch and McLaurin-Brown met and bonded at the New Hanover County NAACP Parents’ Council meeting when Rawitsch was giving a presentation on elementary suspension numbers.

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Rachel Keith
Peter Rawitsch and Veronica McLaurin-Brown in the WHQR studio.

“And he was talking about the data, and I just thought, no, this can’t be, we should have moved from this place a long time ago, And I had what I call a Rosa Park moment, and I began to just kind of say, I just need to do something,” said McLaurin-Brown.

Together Rawitsch and McLaurin-Brown started to formally advocate for ending the suspensions of 4 to 7-year-olds. And according to Rawitsch, he sent research to the board before their March 2021 meeting where Policy 4300, a policy that deals with discipline options, was up for a vote.

“At that meeting, the president of the NAACP was there, the Vice President was there, there were some teachers that spoke, I spoke, others spoke. We had already sent research to the individual board members. And interestingly enough, none of that was mentioned during the meeting, it was not acknowledged. We even had a petition with over 400 signatures; there was no recognition of any of the information we had shared with them before the meeting,” said Rawitsch.

And he thought it was a “great disappointment” when the board approved the policy 7-0.

“And the revision was pretty much the same as the original policy, with very little change. Some of the board members were very proud that they had put it in writing that suspensions would only be used as a last resort,” said Rawitsch.

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NHCS
This is the NHCS policy that outlines responses to student misbehavior.

When the parents’ council met again after that meeting, Rawitsch and McLaurin-Brown discussed where to go, since according to him, “The head of the parents’ council made a decision to stop the effort. So we had some conversations after the parents’ council decided not to pursue it, and we decided we were done talking; we were going to take action”

Since then, they said they’ve met with district leaders, school board members, members of the community, and administrators and teachers to discuss the elimination of suspensions for 4 to 7-year-olds except if the student is in possession of drugs or guns, or has committed a violent assault.

And they’ve even paid for 10 billboards around the county to showcase their cause.

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Peter Rawitsch
This shows where the 'Love our Children' signs are located.

According to Rawitsch, the change is overdue. While the district’s 2016-2020 strategic plan called for eliminating elementary suspensions, he said the district cites professional development as a stumbling block.

“They understand that a goal would be to reduce the number of suspensions, but they had some concerns. And one of them had to do with more training that needed to be done for the teachers,” said Rawitsch.

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NHCS
NHCS Strategic Plan 2016-2020

Rawitsch said district leaders have told him they have no timeline for taking up their initiative. But have said, “Keep doing this, keep advocating. This is going to happen. We support you. We've had that from the administration. We've heard that from the board members.”

McLaurin-Brown said the policy is needed to ensure that the decision to suspend is not subjective: “So I have observed where the teacher was responding, not based on the professionalism, but an emotional response. But we shouldn't hold that against it a teacher on any given day, because we're human beings."

NHCS Suspension Data 

In May 2021, Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam gave a presentation to the board on New Hanover County Schools’ discipline data. She said suspensions have continued to trend down but found that the use of suspensions is inconsistent and disproportionate among schools in the county. Disparities also exist among students of color and students with disabilities.

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NHCS

The school district also has 2019-2020 data that indicates that Black elementary students account for more than half of all suspensions (during those years, Black students accounted for about 17 to 19% of the school population, according to NHCS annual reports for from 2019 and 2020).

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NHCS - Part of a PRR by Peter Rawitsch

And K-2 account for 43% of all elementary suspensions.

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Rachel Freeman, Wrightsboro, and Sunset Park have some of the highest levels of suspensions in the district.

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NHCS

Varnam said there’s another piece of information that is important when assessing the district’s data — the rate of absenteeism on the part of the student.

“Because some of our students engage in behaviors, hoping to be removed from school, because, it's demanding and it's structured and sometimes they've been in situations where they have more freedom outside of school, but we want to make sure that we address that while we're also addressing the instruction being really engaging,” said Varnam.

Dr. Kim Cook is a professor of sociology and criminology at UNCW and director of the university’s restorative justice collaboration. She works on programs that provide alternatives to zero-tolerance policies like suspension.

“But the research is absolutely showing that in schools that make the transition into restorative practices and become more focused on Positive Behavior Interventions (PBI), as well as social-emotional learning, that those schools see a significant reduction in suspensions,” said Cook.

According to data from New Hanover County Schools, the top two reasons elementary students are suspended: aggressive and disruptive behaviors. Dr. Cook said the restorative model teaches adults to help students think through their actions.

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NHCS

“Why are you so angry? Why are you hurting this other kid? Or why are you hurting yourself? Why are you hurting the teacher, whatever the aggression is, give them an opportunity to sort of transition from the emotional center of their brain into the cognitive center of their brain, in the process of trying to think through what they've been doing,” said Cook.

And Cook said that the research also demonstrates that suspensions in general lead to different types of problems for young people: “They're less likely to be academically well-equipped to pursue their education; children who are suspended more frequently tend to have lower academic success when they are suspended.”

The process can also be alienating for children: “Our inclination as a culture to put people away, to segregate people outside of civil society because of their poor behavior is a strategy that pushes people outside of the community and disconnects people.”

And Cook said the stakes are high when the school decides to suspend a student: “School suspensions, nationally, show that the school-to-prison pipeline is a result of zero tolerance, punitive policies for behavior management in schools.”

NHCS Elementary Pilot Program

Varnam said this fall the school system has selected two ‘exemplary’ elementary schools — Snipes and College Park — to pilot what’s called “model positive response strategies to student misbehavior.”

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NHCS
This shows the fall cohort of schools going through the B-RTI/MTSS training from the 'Safer and Civil Schools' model.

More specifically, it’s based on a ‘Safe and Civil Schools’ model developed by educational researcher Randy Sprick. Varnam said the framework is called, Behavioral Response to Intervention (B-RTI): Creating a Continuum of Problem Solving & Support. That has allowed the district to develop a multi-tiered system of support to intervene at various levels with the student who is acting out.

This training will lead the way for 9 additional schools out of the district’s total 26 elementary schools. Varnam said it will help divert kids away from suspensions — but said upending the current policy isn’t the solution.

“If you’re focused on the prevention piece, which is the best thing to do if you’re focused on decreasing the likelihood of negative behaviors, creating a policy to say no more suspensions doesn’t do that,” said Varnam.

But Rawitsch said he doesn’t think more training is needed for teachers and staff: “Don't suspend them, there are so many other interventions that can take place, [...] in Policy 4300, there are 18 alternatives to suspensions that are already in the books. Do they need to do training on that it's already part of the policy? I found that to be really a weak excuse.”

Varnam said they are training the schools to help students manage their behavior:

”For students who get upset, that's what they always use to express their frustration or to try to take control of a situation for reasons that might be very valid because they don't feel like they're safe, when we teach them replacement and alternative behaviors, that also helps meet their needs.”

And Dr. Cook said the support framework needs to be there for the teacher in the classroom: “With teachers aides and guidance counselors and school social workers to help take the child who is experiencing a difficult moment and soothe that child's needs in ways that meet trauma-informed practice.”

Rawitsch offered a real-life example of how the district could keep a child in school, even if it is for a concerning behavior: “But let's just think for a moment, if a five-year-old throws a desk across the room, how is that child going to improve that behavior? Well, it probably starts with a conversation to find out what's going on? Yeah, and it probably means digging deeper. And it means providing services to help the child. I don't think anyone is going to say, ‘Well, if we take the child out of school, they're going to get better when they're out of school.’ Know that the professional help is in the building: social workers, guidance counselors, behavior specialists, that support is there in the school.”

Disparities and a Cycle of Suspensions 

McLaurin-Brown said suspensions as a consequence start a harsh cycle, especially in communities of color:

“And so if my child gets sent home for suspensions, there's a good chance that in my household, I was sent home. And then my grandmother was sent home because we've been doing it so long; we've been doing it so excessively. And there’s been great disparity,” said McLaurin-Brown.

She said that the district needs a clear and consistent policy to protect children from being sent home:

“You hear them speak to the fact that sometimes an incident can happen at one school, and somebody gets five days, and then that person will just have a conversation at another school. So, if you say that you’re only going to suspend kids outside of school except for those three reasons [drugs, guns, and violent assaults] then every school in every grade, for every teacher, know what the standard is,” said McLaurin-Brown.

McLaurin-Brown said that some in the region haven’t paid attention to the suspension issue is because it affects more vulnerable communities.

“And if it's not happening to you, you haven't really paid any attention to it. And if it has been happening to you, you didn't know who else was happening to. And then I also think that it's been happening so long, three generations, five decades, that the people who have been doing it and the institution has gotten used to it. It’s been normalized for the people giving the suspensions and normalized for the families who have been receiving them," she said.

Next Steps 

But programs like positive behavioral support and restorative justice take time to implement — as do the efforts of teachers, counselors, and administrators leading the child in making better choices. But Varnam said it’s more about fending off misbehavior in the first place.

“If you don't have systems in place, and you don't focus on the positive behavior support, you don't focus on creating a culture of belonging and support, then no, you aren't going to have enough resources, there probably wouldn't be any amount of resources that would provide for students if we didn't focus on the prevention piece first,” said Varnam.

Varnam said those nine elementary schools should finish their professional development in January — and the next steps are finding ways to involve parents in changing school culture.

New Hanover County School Board Chair Stefanie Adams said of elementary suspensions, “I think that we all agree, it's not something that we want, but we also have to have a plan in place before we can move away from them. So much of that refers back to social-emotional learning and helping children learn to cope and have behaviors in a different way to share their emotions.”

As for the schools in the Cape Fear Region that Dr. Cook works with, she said it’s difficult for them to stick with the restorative justice model: “Because it is the transition to restorative practices that is really hard. In many schools that try it, don't continue because the hard part is almost an obstacle.”

One of the hard parts is getting to the root cause of the behavior over time with a consistent support network of adults.