Ch@T: Group seeks solutions for students whose brushes with the law stymie academic path

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The short-term suspension rates for Black students and students with disabilities in Chatham County is more than four times that of white students. That has to do with the behaviors that lead to suspensions, of course, but a group of Chatham County residents says the negative effects of suspensions — which includes the interruption of the suspended students’ education — are as concerning as the disproportionate rates at which students with disabilities and Black and multiracial students are referred to law enforcement for actions at school.

This week, we speak with David G. Delaney, an attorney and Chatham County resident, about the so-called “school to prison pipeline.” Delaney is helping to develop a plan to work to reduce exclusionary practices and school-related delinquency complaints by 90% over one year, as well as to create a collaborative community partnership to maintain safety in schools — yet at the same time interrupt that pipeline.

Delaney serves as chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee of the NAACP Chatham Community Branch. An army veteran and parent of two elementary school children, he has taught law and public policy at Indiana University and UNC-Chapel Hill.

What drew your interest and attention in the “school to prison” pipeline?

The NAACP has had a long-standing interest in keeping children in school and eliminating racial disparities in schools and criminal justice systems. Our branch’s criminal justice committee noticed that there was very little accessible information describing those concerns in Chatham County. So we decided to look for information that would describe the status quo and help us consider what kind of improvements could be made.

What does the data suggest about the school to prison pipeline, specifically in Chatham County?

A 2019 report of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice stated that 57% of juvenile delinquencies in Chatham County — about 110 — were school-related. Those struck us as high numbers. The vast majority of those students do not enter juvenile detention, but they are processed through the justice system, consume significant public resources and can be detrimentally affected by the experience. Unfortunately, we could not find detailed data on 2020 school-related delinquencies. Our upcoming conversations with court personnel, the Sheriff’s Office and Chatham County Schools should bring that information into public discussion.

However, 2019 and 2020 data clearly show that students with disabilities and Black, Hispanic, multiracial and American Indian students are disproportionately impacted by disciplinary and law enforcement practices. For example, Black students and students with disabilities are, respectively, 4.4 and four times more likely than white students to receive short-term suspensions that remove them from school for up to 10 days. Students with disabilities are referred to law enforcement at the highest rate of any student group. We also found that Black and multiracial students were referred to law enforcement at almost twice the average rate. Inadequate resources for students’ needs, implicit racial bias and socioeconomic factors are some of the possible reasons for these disparities.

Most schools have a “zero-tolerance” behavior policy. What is that, why has it contributed to the problem and why is it important to re-think that?

The schools are not our only focus for zero-tolerance policies, but that’s a good place to start. We expect schools to say that classroom disruptions, discrimination, assaults or threats will not be tolerated. The concern arises when policies mandate disciplinary or law enforcement responses that treat all students the same and remove them from the normal learning environment.

When there is zero flexibility in addressing student behavior — perhaps by mandating suspension or school resource officer involvement — students fall behind and lose the benefits of the shared learning environment. School discipline can be positive and constructive instead of punitive and exclusionary. When school personnel have the discretion, skills and resources to be constructive and pay special attention to a student’s emotional needs, disability or other circumstances, the child can learn better and stay on a path to success in school and life.

What other zero-tolerance policies contribute to the problem?

Some laws create zero-tolerance policies. For example, North Carolina law requires principals to report 10 categories of student crime to law enforcement. Principals can be charged with a misdemeanor crime and lose their teaching license for failing to report the behavior. That’s a zero-tolerance policy that may also lead school officials to over-report student misconduct. Our committee is going to study these laws more closely over the coming months to see if legislative changes are warranted.

When students are referred to the school resource officer, they may find that individual officers, law enforcement policies, or court personnel bring other zero-tolerance policies into the equation. We learned of a student charged with a crime in a neighboring county for behavior that rarely reaches a court. Was a school official biased against the Black student? Did the school resource officer have a zero-tolerance policy for such behavior (or such behavior by Black students) to promote safety because he had family members in the school system? Did the juvenile court counselor defer to the sheriff’s office as a matter of policy for some reason?

Awareness of the ways that formal and informal zero-tolerance policies operate can help community members identify them and find ways to inject expert discretion back into the equation.

What are the specific goals you and the local NAACP have?

First and foremost, our Chatham Community Branch wants to give our community common knowledge and language to frame conversations. Data helps us do that. By knowing more about the issues, we hope to inform community dialog, involvement and improvement. The NAACP has a special interest in eliminating disparities for racial and ethnic groups and students with disabilities. We urge stakeholders to focus on that goal while aspiring to make Chatham County the statewide leader in reducing school-related diversions to the criminal justice system.

The goal we propose is to reduce by 90% the number of students who are referred to law enforcement, suspended at home or enter the criminal justice system for school-related acts.

Where is Chatham County Schools in these discussions? Where does Chatham County stack up?

Our committee was very impressed with the five-year strategic Equity and Excellence for Everyone program that Chatham County Schools has been implementing. It addresses these issues, provides employee learning opportunities, promotes behavioral development and problem solving for students, increases student mental health services and links school leaders to other community stakeholders. We see a strong foundation to build on.

You included students with disabilities in your data search. Why is that important, and what else needs said about that population?

We learned a lot by speaking with local child development experts and considering the experience of other counties. More children with emotional and behavioral disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and intellectual disabilities are involved in the justice system than are children with other disabilities. But other disabilities can affect behavior and discipline, too, so the schools and criminal justice system must be prepared to serve a wide range of student needs. Special concern and planning is required to support all students with disabilities, their families and educators both to prevent and respond to student behaviors. Fortunately, our community seems to have many well-qualified experts, specialists and counselors to help our public institutions reduce the disparate treatment that students with disabilities experience.

What’s the next step in creating a collaborative community partnership to maintain safety in schools, yet at the same time interrupt that pipeline?

One possibility is to leverage the resources of the N.C. Judicial Branch’s School Justice Partnership program. We are reaching out to Chief District Court Judge Samantha Cabe, CCS and Chatham County Sheriff Mike Roberson to explore their interest in that option.

Another possibility is creating Chatham County’s own stakeholder agreement. That option could include some of the judicial branch’s goals while also implementing best practices recommended by the N.C. Dept. of Public Safety Juvenile Community Program Section. Ideally, the schools, courts, juvenile justice professionals and Sheriff’s Office work from a common list of priority goals after deeper analysis of nonpublic data that helps pinpoint specific needs in specific schools or geographic areas.

In your report, your committee recommends that “CCS, CCSO, and the courts collectively work to reduce exclusionary practices and school-related delinquency complaints by 90% over one year.” Why is that important?

We’re providing these numbers [see above table] to help all parts of our community envision what excellent outcomes can look like. We want public officials to ask, “What kind of changes in my organization would enable this much better future for our children?” That kind of open-ended, positive thinking enables new ideas and implementation plans to come forward.

Let’s assume that about half of 2020 juvenile delinquency complaints were school-related, as they were in 2019. That’s 73 complaints involving an unknown number of children. We know that CCS reported 63 criminal acts at school resulting in 11 referrals to law enforcement. By reviewing those situations, officials can identify specific student behaviors, school responses and justice system actions that might be improved.

If all public officials share a goal of reducing those numbers by 90%, they can identify ways to prevent student misbehavior, respond with positive behavioral interventions and adjust law enforcement involvement to help achieve the goal. That kind of analysis also helps determine the best ways to spend public dollars, engage nonprofits, help families, seek additional professional expertise or service providers and pursue grants or private donations to fill gaps. Without that kind of analysis, improving outcomes for students is more of a guessing game.

When we set these county-wide goals for next year — only 15 juvenile delinquency complaints, six criminal acts at school and one school referral to law enforcement — we’re asking stakeholders to envision great progress. More than that, we’re asking stakeholders to picture the faces of the students who will realize the life-changing benefits of the community’s extra efforts. Those students’ brighter futures should guide us all so they are not just imaginary stories.

The News + Record is preparing a series of related stories addressing these issues.


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