CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - It's going to be harder for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools principals to suspend 4- to 8-year-olds this school year, after the school board approved a last-minute compromise policy that requires the superintendent's sign-off.
Board members have spent more than a year wrangling over whether to ban out-of-school suspension of children in prekindergarten through second grade. No one's happy about the fact that the district logs roughly 1,000 suspensions a year in that age range (the district has about 33,000 students in those grades).
Many in the community are concerned that black boys bear the brunt of those suspensions, and say that can start them on a path that leads through school failure to prison and poverty.
"That behavior and how they're treated becomes a norm," Dee Rankin, who works with jailed teens and chairs the Black Political Caucus' education committee, said at a May forum on educational disparities. "There's a stigma that goes around with black kids, that follows them."
But two of the school board's most vocal advocates for disadvantaged black students, Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Ruby Jones, remained locked in disagreement over strategies as the board vote came up Tuesday. Ellis-Stewart insisted on a moratorium on preK-2 suspensions, while Jones said schools need the flexibility to remove truly disruptive children who threaten their classmates' safety and create classroom chaos.
Rhonda Lennon made the motion that won 7-2 approval Tuesday. The original proposal, approved by the board's policy committee, added one sentence to the CMS discipline policy directing the superintendent to work with principals on alternatives to suspension.
Lennon introduced a revision that requires the top-level sign-off and a monthly report from the superintendent. She tearfully recounted how her niece, as a tiny 5-year-old just adopted from a Ukranian orphanage, was suspended from a CMS kindergarten class for striking a teacher assistant. The incident happened after the assistant reached over the child's shoulder, triggering a defensive move from the child, Lennon said.
Board Chair Mary McCray asked Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who took office July 3, what he thought of the plan.
Wilcox was silent for a few seconds. "If it's the board's pleasure, we will make it happen," he replied.
The only opposition to what Lennon dubbed "the Julia policy" came from Ellis-Stewart, who said it didn't go far enough, and Paul Bailey, who said he was just hearing about it and wanted more time.
Lennon said afterward she's been discussing the option with colleagues for a couple of weeks. She acknowledged the review creates extra work for a superintendent who's stepping into a demanding new job, but said she thinks it will lead to a reduction in suspensions for offenses that could have been handled other ways.
On the other hand, Lennon said, it leaves room to remove children who commit major offenses, such as bringing a gun from home or stabbing classmates and teachers with pencils and scissors.
Another point of wide agreement, among board members, community advocates and CMS staff: The real answer lies in helping faculty and families work constructively with troubled children before their lives spin out of control.
Mecklenburg County is paying for therapists to be stationed in several schools, where they can help children and families cope with trauma or mental illness. The school board had hoped to add 60 new counselors, social workers and psychologists this year, but only got money for 12 new positions.
Wilcox told the board he's been studying changes made by Miami-Dade schools that dropped suspensions to nearly zero. He didn't elaborate, but assured them he's working on plans to provide CMS schools with better options.