CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' youngest children are being suspended at much lower rates this school year, the result of a push to find better ways to deal with 5- to 7-year-olds who shove, hit, disrupt class and otherwise behave badly.
As of mid-October the district had suspended 23 children in grades K-2, compared with 94 during the same period in the previous school year. The goal is to avoid labeling young children as troublemakers and kicking them out of school, which can set them on a path to failure in school and in life.
For more than a year the school board grappled with the best way to do that. Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart pushed for a moratorium on suspending children younger than third grade, but most board members wanted to keep that option open for the most severe cases.
For instance, three young students have been suspended for bringing knives to school this year. Others have been removed after being extremely aggressive with classmates or adults, said Kathy Elling, associate superintendent of school performance.
"We want kids to be safe," Elling said Monday. "We want kids to be able to express what's going on with them in a way that enables them to learn and grow, both socioeconomically and academically. We want classrooms to be safe, so that students don't have to worry about potentially explosive situations happening in classrooms. And we want the adults to be able to teach."
CMS officials and community activists hailed the drop in suspensions as a promising start, though concerns remain that black boys still account for most of the K-2 suspensions.
The numbers present a classic optimistic-pessimist dilemma: Celebrate the fact that the number of young black males suspended dropped from 60 during the first few weeks of 2016-17 to 16 during the same stretch this year? Or raise concern that those 16 represent almost 70 percent of all K-2 students suspended so far this year, while black males are only 19 percent of the CMS student body?
Dee Rankin, chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus' education committee, says his answer is both.
Rankin said he's pleased to see the numbers, which were reported to the school board and media as part of policy charging Superintendent Clayton Wilcox with helping principals bring down suspensions. But he's still concerned about the racial breakdown.
"We know that the infractions aren't only occurring with black students. That just doesn't make any logical sense," Rankin said.
A separate report, produced at the request of school board candidate Sean Strain, shows how the trends set in early childhood turn into big numbers with serious repercussions. That report showed that African-American students, who make up 38 percent of the student body, account for about 75 percent of all suspensions for all grades so far this year.
That translates to 1,189 African-American males who have logged 1,593 suspensions in the first few weeks of school, a rate of 4.2 percent. In comparison, African-American females have been suspended at a rate of 1.9 percent, Hispanic males at 1.3 percent and other groups at less than 1 percent.
Disproportionate suspension of black students is viewed by some as the first step in what has been dubbed "the school-to-prison pipeline," which will be the focus of a Charlotte Women's March forum on Nov. 16. Strain requested this year's numbers in preparation for that event.
Those who argue that high suspension rates for black students are based on racism note that the bulk of suspensions for minority students aren't for clear-cut offenses like bringing weapons or drugs to school, but for those open to interpretation, such as aggressive or disruptive behavior.
The report comparing K-2 CMS suspensions in fall of 2016 and fall of 2017 show that's where the big change came. CMS suspended 79 children for aggressive behavior in 2016, compared with 11 in 2017. Disruptive behavior brought 27 suspensions in 2017 and four this year.
Elling said in the early grades, aggressive behavior usually involves shoving or hitting children or adults. Disruptive behavior might mean wandering around the classroom interfering with students who are trying to focus on their work despite a teacher's best efforts to get the student back on track.
The quest to cut suspensions starts with such basics as teaching classroom routines and helping young children learn safe ways to express anger or frustration, Elling said. "You can very well teach little people to stop, sit and think before you act," she said.
Teachers recognize and reward good behavior. These tactics aren't new, but Elling said CMS is providing extra support and training. She said she recently watched a teacher use ClassDojo, an app that lets teachers give students points toward rewards with a digital click, allowing children to get the praise immediately without disrupting the lesson.
When violations happen, teachers are encouraged to consider options such as removing the child from the situation and encouraging reflection on what happened and how it could have been handled better. School administrators decide when a suspension is merited.
A policy the school board approved in August added a new layer: Every suspension below third grade now requires approval from the superintendent.
That doesn't appear to be a major factor in the decline so far. Wilcox had just started as superintendent in July and was gearing up for the start of school when the board voted. The district had to work out a review system that was realistic given his overall workload, Elling said.
An email system was launched after the year began, Elling said. So far Wilcox has reviewed six requests and approved four of them.
School board member Rhonda Lennon, who made the motion to require the superintendent's review, said she's encouraged by the first report.
"I think we're going to make a difference in the lives of children this way," she said Monday.