Teens speak out about curbing school suspensions

sbarr@newsobserver.comFebruary 18, 2014 

— A group of teenagers concerned about the disciplinary policies in Wake County Public Schools are finding ways to make their voices heard.

As Wake Schools superintendent Jim Merrill has made his way across the county in recent weeks for a series of listening sessions, the students have made their case against what they view as problematic suspension policies and an over-the-top police presence in county schools.

“I think the most important people to speak are the youth, the students in the schools. These policies directly affect us,” said Ramiyah Robinson, 14, a ninth-grader at Southeast Raleigh High School who spoke at a forum earlier this month at the school.

Students urged Merrill to hold further community forums that would address discipline issues specifically. Others spoke about the need to reduce the number of suspension, address disproportionate suspension rates for students of color and those with disabilities and have more data on suspensions and in-school arrests.

Robinson is a member of NC HEAT (Heroes Emerging Among Teens), a youth advocacy group that works in Wake and beyond to address discipline policies and other civil and human rights issues.

The students learn from one another about alternatives to typical discipline methods such as suspensions and expulsions, participate in organizing campaigns and protests and speak out at forums.

When it comes to discipline, they’re pushing Wake schools to move toward an approach that addresses the root causes of misbehavior rather than removing students from school. It’s part of a nationwide discussion about how to make sure disciplinary policies don’t force students out of school altogether.

Markyona Patrick, 16, is a tenth-grader at Broughton High School and a member of NC who said it’s helpful to work with a group of like-minded students on the issues she’s passionate about.

“I know I'm not the only person who cares,” she said.

NC HEAT also works closely with groups such as the Education Justice Alliance and the Youth Organizing Institute. NC HEAT also is a supporter of a federal complaint filed in January that charges at police officers who work in Wake schools routinely violate the Constitutional rights of minority students.

The groups all have been vocal critics of the school system. As a first step, they have called specifically for a moratorium on out-of school suspensions for so-called Level 1 offenses, behaviors such as cursing, violating the dress code, or skipping class.

Earlier this year, the school board voted to change county policy so that students will no longer typically be suspended for Level 1 offenses. Students would get punishments such as in-school suspensions unless they commit any three Level I offenses in a single semester.

Principals could cite aggravating circumstances to get approval to issue a suspension on the first or second offense.

The students want more changes, though. For now, they are waiting to hear more from the school system about what can be done to address their concerns.

Robinson said the students are in this for the long haul, even if they don’t see changes in school policies right away.

“We will definitely keep talking to them,” she said.

Barr: 919-836-4952

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