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NHC school board narrowly rejects 'Love our Children' call to stop suspending young students

Veronica McLaurin-Brown with the Love Our Children group.
Peter Rawitsch
Veronica McLaurin-Brown with the Love Our Children group.

For the last year, advocates have called for a ban on suspensions of 4-to-7-year old students, with exceptions for extreme cases like gun and drug possession, and violence. Board members generally support ending the practice, but the majority argued that staff and administration need more time to develop disciplinary alternatives to suspension.

At Tuesday night's New Hanover County Board of Education meeting, the issue of suspending 4-to-7-year-old students finally made it on the agenda, after nearly a year of pressure from advocates.

The vote did not break along party lines, with Democrats Judy Justice and Vice-Chair Stephanie Walker joined by Republican Pete Wildeboer calling to end the practice by the beginning of the next academic year in September. Chair Stephanie Kraybill, a Republican, was joined by Democrats Hugh McManus, Stephanie Adams, and Nelson Beaulieu — who agreed the district should phase out the practice, but also that more time was needed.

Advocates Veronica McLaurin-Brown and Peter Rawitsch started ramping up their public calls to end the practice last summer, bring their group — "Love Our Children" — to New Hanover County Board of Education meetings, and organizing speakers to address the issue of suspending young students during the Call to the Audience portion of meetings. In fact, the group's public comments have been so consistent — along with teaching assistants calling for higher pay — that Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill considered changes to the Call to the Audience procedure to prevent them from "taking up all of our time."

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

McLaurin-Brown and Rawitsch have repeatedly reminded the board that ending the practice of elementary school suspensions was part of the district's 2016-2020 strategic plan — and that not enough has been done to prepare staff and administration to achieve that goal. They've also noted that suspensions for young students disproportionately impact minority students.

The district acknowledged some of these issues, but officials say more training is needed to help teachers find alternative methods for dealing with disruptive students.

Last September, then-Chair Stefanie Adams said, “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.”

The district has launched a series of pilot programs to work on the transition away from suspending young students.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.