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Love Our Children prevails: New Hanover school board unanimously votes to end suspensions for young students

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Love Our Children's Peter Rawitsch gives the thumb's up to the group after the vote.

At the Tuesday, April 5, New Hanover County Board of Education meeting, board members voted unanimously to end the suspensions of students under 8 years old, except in the cases of weapons, drugs, and violent assaults. The new rule will be effective starting next school year.

Related: NHC School Board members get seclusion room presentation - but not a lot of real data

Before the vote, members had a contentious debate over the policy. A divide arose between members Stephanie Walker, Hugh McManus, Pete Wildeboer, and Judy Justice who wanted to end those suspensions that evening — and Chair Stephanie Kraybill, Stefanie Adams, and Nelson Beaulieu who wanted to wait for the committee to write the policy language before the official approval.

McManus led the charge of voting that night: “Just end the policy - that’s all I want to do, just vote yes or no to end suspensions [those under 8] tonight. That’s all. That’s my motion.”

Chair Stefanie Kraybill disagreed and said she wanted a policy written by the administration and the policy committee before the vote. She stated further, “We cannot write policy from the dais.”

Member Wildeboer countered Kraybill by saying, “Our job is to write policy.”

McManus agreed with Wildeboer, “We’re not discussing policy; we’ll discuss that another time. Right now, we’re going to end it. [If] it’s a four [person] vote, then we end the policy.”

Kraybill interjected, “Then I’m going to look like the idiot because we don’t have a plan.” McManus then said, “I’ll accept your idiocy — we need to vote.”

But Adams reiterated the need to wait for official approval, “I appreciate that Love Our Children is here, but they are not working in our schools. We should not approve a policy without consulting the experts and the policy committee.”

The dispute continued until board attorney Colin Shive presented a solution.

“So I think a way that the board could take action tonight, while also leaving the final wording of the policy committee without leaving too much area for deviation from certain exceptions, would be for somebody to make a motion to refer policy 4351 to the policy committee with the direction that the committee shall amend the policy to end suspensions for those under 8, subject to exceptions that would include drugs, weapons, and violence and aggression,” said Shive.

All board members agreed — and they voted unanimously on the motion presented by Shive.

After the vote, Justice can be heard saying, “Thank you, you did that,” attributing the policy’s passage to the advocacy of the group, Love Our Children.

Advocacy of Love Our Children

Peter Rawitsch is one of the co-leaders of Love Our Children.

"We show up at every board meeting and ending suspensions was not on the agenda. So you can imagine our surprise when McManus made a motion when they were approving the evening's agenda to add ending suspensions. We thought that was a clue that he was ready to switch his vote. And it was a nail-biting evening to wait to see how that came out. We’re so grateful for the outcome,” said Rawitsch.

He said the group had spent 13 months campaigning for the policy.

“We started to build a team. And as that team grew, our voice grew stronger. And as more people showed up at the board meetings with us, we began to add more pressure on the board to take an action. They were kicking the can down the road. And, last night, they were very decisive in their decision,” said Rawitsch.

But the group had to endure failure, said Rawitsch. The board decided not to revamp the suspension policy for those under 8 on two separate occasions, once in March 2021 and another in March 2022.

But he said the board was inching closer to this vote, starting last month.

“And instead of having a 7-0 vote [March 2021], it was a 3-4 vote [March 2022]. So we had flipped three board members [Walker, Justice, and Wildeboer]. And we knew we were one vote away. And that was part of my speech last night to the board saying that we only need one more vote, one of the board members could make a difference in the lives of all of these young children. We were astonished when we got four more votes,” said Rawitsch.

He said that, in addition to their advocacy, the numbers speak for themselves. According to the district’s elementary out-of-school (OSS) suspension data, in the first five months of this year, there were only 81 suspensions, which is historically lower than in previous years.

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Compiled from Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam's Quarter 1 & 2 data on elementary suspensions.

Rawitsch said he attributes this to the district’s implementing new discipline procedures, improving school climate, and giving teachers and administrators the tools they needed to make this change.

But there’s still work to be done, according to Rawitsch. They’ll be at the next policy committee on Tuesday, April 12 to “monitor the specific language” of the new policy. And they’ll be present when the board officially votes on the language at their May 3 meeting.

When asked what the group’s next steps are after this policy change, Rawitsch said, “We've always viewed ourselves as an ant taking a bite out of an elephant. There are so many issues that need to be addressed in the New Hanover County Schools. And with our Love Our Children team, we'll be looking at those and deciding which is the next activity, the next policy that we want to impact that will improve the lives of children and their families. So we're just getting started.”

Board’s Other Business

Members also voted unanimously to approve the district’s 2022-2027 Strategic Plan.

The plan outlines specific goals and strategies the school system wants to achieve over the next five years. District leaders said they would give quarterly and yearly updates to board members on the plan’s progress.

The main questions about the plan came from Wildeboer who asked about the social-emotional learning (SEL) objectives and who had the charge of instituting the district’s ‘equity teams.’

Communications Supervisor Caress Clegg said that the district is working on a definition of equity to share with the community so that they understand the plan’s goals on equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Lastly, the board voted unanimously to review rules of decorum at their upcoming work session meetings— and they’ll be focusing on the budget for the next school year.

Last year’s budget was $438 million — about 45% came from state funding, 28% from federal, and 27% from local revenue, which amounted to $91.9 million.

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2021-2022 NHCS Budget Breakdown

About 83% of local funding is provided from the county with approval from the county commissioners. The rest, according to Interim Chief Financial Officer Ashley Sutton, are from fines and forfeitures.

Kraybill also announced the creation of a task force to begin working on issues related to the staff climate survey. Members Hugh McManus and Stephanie Walker will represent the board and Assistant Superintendent Dr. Chris Barnes will be the district’s representative.