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School district says discplinary changes help even as crime rate rises

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(The Center Square) – Crime is at a higher rate than the previous year in a North Carolina school district after implementation of an updated disciplinary policy for which it paid a nonprofit more than $800,000 to help create.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools reported fewer short and long-term suspensions for the school year and no expulsions, part of a broader shift toward equitable discipline. Critics say the changes have made conditions worse for students because disruptive students are not removed from class.

The school district has more than 53,000 students and was the subject of an investigation by the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights for racial disparities in its disciplinary practices last fall.

According to 2022-23 school-level crime statistics reported to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, the state’s fourth-largest district reported more criminal acts per 1,000 students than in the previous year.

Critics say the changes have not made the school safer and instead have had the opposite effect on student safety and well-being by allowing disruptive students to come back to class.

There were more than 9,000 short-term suspensions and three long-term suspensions meted out in the 2022-23 school year, according to state data from the district. That’s down from over 10,000 short-term and 12 long-term suspensions the previous year.

The district’s code of conduct prioritizes keeping students in school as part of a broader push toward more equitable disciplinary practices that utilize restorative justice and other non-exclusionary interventions.

According to the district website, the “Code of Character, Conduct, and Support Goals” includes as the first two: decrease use of disciplinary responses resulting in lost instructional time, and decrease disproportional application of disciplinary responses.

Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools has rewritten its discipline policy in recent years, using federal taxpayer money to contract with Engaging Schools. The district has paid the nonprofit $806,692.95 since the 2021-22 fiscal year.

School leadership says the changes have been helpful in addressing behavioral issues.

“The Code of Character, Conduct, and Support has proven valuable for our school district, offering clear guidelines and expectations for students, staff, and parents,” according to a statement from Fredricca Stokes, assistant superintendent of student services at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools. “With a focus on accountability, inclusivity, and restorative practices, the code has established a shared language across the district, promoting universal strategies for prevention and intervention. We are more equipped to address behavioral issues promptly and equitably, thereby fostering a safe and conducive learning environment.”

The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights said students were still disciplined disproportionately based on their race.

“During the 2022-23 school year, the district reported that African American students received 57.2% of discipline resulting in in-school or out-of-school suspension and white students received 14.2% of such discipline as of March 2023; in that school year, 29% of district students were African American and 34% were white,” a press release from the Office of Civil Rights said.

Chalkboard News reported last spring that Black students made up about a third of the student body but accounted for almost two-thirds of short-term suspensions in the 2021-22 school year.

Possession of a controlled substance was the most reported criminal activity (464) at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, according to the data it submitted to the state for 2022-23. Possession of a weapon (140) was a distant second.

The school is appealing its final tally (30) of serious assaults, saying it misrepresented the number to the state. That’s a marked increase from the previous year.

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