GREENSBORO — Students and parents could soon have the chance to appeal a short-term suspension in Guilford County Schools.
The appeal is part of a new student discipline policy proposal that could be unique among school districts in North Carolina if adopted by the Guilford County Board of Education, school leaders said. Superintendent Sharon Contreras said it is practiced by school districts in other states.
Board members appear divided on the issue, with some passionately supporting the change and others expressing skepticism. They voted 6-3 at their regular meeting on Thursday to seek public feedback on a proposed student discipline policy that would add the appeals process. The 30-day comment period is typical when the board looks to make such policy changes.
Contreras is promoting the change as necessary for the fair treatment of students.
“This is the United States, where we value fairness and due process as the foundation of our justice system,” she said.
With the proposed change, a parent or student who objects to a short-term suspension of 10 or fewer days could appeal the suspension to the superintendent’s designee. That could be the school support officer who is the principal’s direct supervisor, according to Chief of Staff Nora Carr. From there, a student or parent would have the option to appeal one more step, to the superintendent.
The Rev. Daran Mitchell, pastor of Trinity AME Zion Church in Greensboro, urged the board to support the superintendent’s recommendation during the public comment period at Thursday’s meeting.
“I believe moving forward in regard to this necessary measure will ensure that we will reduce the suspension rate and also give our young people a voice,” he said.
He was among a cluster of a half-dozen or so speakers at the meeting from church, education advocacy, or civil rights groups who urged board members to support and listen to the superintendent, whether on this particular issue or more generally.
Parent Steve Mitchell said adding an appeals process would likely take control away from principals, embolden student misbehavior and bog down schools in paperwork.
“Guilford County Schools seem to be falling down a very slippery slope — one that needs to be stopped,” he said.
Contreras told board members she isn’t trying to use this particular policy change as a way to reduce suspensions. Nor does she see it as taking control away from principals.
Mostly, she said, conversation between the principal, parent and student is likely to clear up confusion about the facts of the case and punishment given, and settle the issue.
According to district staff, suspensions can become part of a student’s permanent record, and the Common Application for colleges asks students to report if they’ve ever been suspended. Given that, Contreras said, it’s critical for parents to be able to raise their concerns above the school when they feel discipline procedures have not been properly followed after discussing the issue with the principal.
In accordance with state law, Guilford County Schools already offers a more-involved process for long-term suspensions and expulsions. Long-term suspensions require the approval of the superintendent with the possibility of appeal to a Board of Education panel. Expulsions require a hearing before such a panel.
Staff said some parents already find ways to go over a principal’s head to find someone to listen to their complaints or concerns about suspensions.
Chief of Schools Tony Watlington said the idea for changing the policy came up after a parent wanted to talk to him about her student’s suspension.
She inquired about whether state law cut off the possibility of being able to appeal a suspension. Watlington said that question helped school leaders realize that while the law says students don’t have a right to appeal past the principal, it also says school districts may put an appeals process in place at the local school board’s discretion.
Putting a policy in place would make it more fair for everyone, board member Winston McGregor said. False accusations, misunderstandings, or unfair sentences, she suggested, can happen to anyone.
“I understand that we don’t want to undermine principals; I think they are exposed without this frankly, and if other districts aren’t doing this, well we should be the first, sometimes you step up,” she said, to a smattering of applause from the audience. “To those parents who are advocating against this policy, I say, ‘Take a breath, because if this is your child, you are going to want this process.’”
Chairwoman Deena Hayes-Greene said having the option of an appeal could be especially important to students of color who may face unconscious bias or other fairness issues in their schools.
Vice Chairwoman T. Dianne Bellamy-Small and board member Khem Irby also spoke in favor of the change, while members Linda Welborn, Pat Tillman, Darlene Garrett, Byron Gladden and Anita Sharpe shared either concerns or opposition.
Tillman said the proposed change seemed, “a solution without a problem.” And Garrett said she thought the change would undermine principals as well as safety in schools.
Welborn also said she felt the change would undermine the authority of principals. And she thought some families might take advantage of the situation, and that appealing up through the administration could turn into a common occurrence, rather than a rare one, as the superintendent had suggested. That could lead to overburdening the district staff, she said.
“I want to say, if I am a parent ... I don’t want that suspension on my child’s record, why in the world would I not appeal?” Welborn said. “I don’t know any parent that wants their child suspended, not one.”