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Data: Suspensions continue to decline in Cumberland County Schools

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Cumberland County Schools has seen a downward trend in the number of suspensions in all areas, based on data presented to a Board of Education committee earlier this month.

The school board’s Student Support Services committee presented the report Jan. 4 following a special meeting of the school board.

Even though suspensions were down across all categories, the data showed that suspensions for Black students were still higher than for other ethnicities.

The school system’s suspension data is shared with board members each year once the N.C. Department of Public Instruction releases it. The data was released to the district in October.

Mary Black, the associate superintendent of Student Support Services, presented the data to the board after it was compiled in Powerpoint form.

As part of her presentation, Black talked about what the district is doing to offer other options to schools and not just rely on suspensions.

“The data is important because it allows us to see if we are decreasing or increasing the use of suspension in our schools and across the district as a whole,” said Ron Phipps, an associate superintendent of data and accountability for Cumberland County Schools.

“We do (separate) the data so we can identify any trends and specific areas of focus,” he said.

Based on the district’s definitions, a short-term suspension is one given to a student between one and 10 days; a long-term suspension is one that lasts 11 days or more.

Alternative placement or assignment to an alternative school or program may be for the remainder of a semester, 45 days or the remainder of the school year.

“I think one reason is that we have begun to focus on it and provide other options for the schools,” Phipps said when asked what he thinks has led to the decrease in suspensions. “Schools are using other things with the students, and I think that has given schools options, and they have a toolbox with many tools to use that maybe they did not have in the past.”

Black concurred, saying the school system has "other avenues to pursue so the use of suspension is not the only consequence for some infractions."

"We recognize the trauma that exists among our school population so the increased support for social and emotional learning is making a tremendous impact in helping students with activities that address their specific problem and activities which will help them learn other options for their decision-making," she said. "It is the district's goal to keep students in school. Therefore, every effort is made to provide alternatives to suspensions with site-based interventions as opportunities for teaching appropriate behavior and expectations."

Staff members teach students appropriate social behavior, just as they would teach math or science, Black said. "We have found that when students practice the learned skills, the school climate becomes more positive and safer. We have found that when schools focus on improving the behavior of students, both academics and behavior often improves throughout the school."

Schools have seen a reduction in the numbers and percentages of suspensions in all ethnicities, Phipps said.

“The suspension rate for African-American students is still much higher than all other ethnicities,” he said. “We want to see all of them continue to drop and celebrate the accomplishments of our students instead of their behavioral mistakes.”

From the 2018-19 school year to 2019-20, the percentage of Black students (males and females combined) with at least one suspension dropped from 21.9% to 15.1%, the data indicated.

The 2020-21 school year was disrupted by the novel coronavirus, and the percentage of Black students with at least one suspension stood at an incomplete .43%, the numbers showed.

The percentage of Hispanic students (males and females combined) with at least one suspension dropped over those three school terms from 11.2% to 6.5% to the incomplete .15%, respectively, according to the data.

The percentage of American Indian students with at least one suspension dropped over that same stretch from 15.8% to 9.8% to .92%, respectively.

The percentage of white students with at least one suspension, the report said, declined from 9.4% to 5.3% to .18%.

Once you review the data, Phipps said, it has historically been heavily weighted toward African-American students being suspended at a higher rate and percentage than other ethnicities.

“We want to focus on every group of students, but since the number is much higher,” he said, “I wanted to be sure their attention was drawn to that.  We will continue to address this and provide data each year to monitor our progress."

Black males led male students on the number of suspensions over a five-year period, with 3,318 of those children reported suspended in 2019-20.

Black females led female students on the number of suspensions over a similar five-year stretch, with 1,503 of those youth reported suspended in 2019-20.

But the data indicates a downward trend in those African-American categories since the 2016-17 school year.

“We want our students in school every day,” Phipps said. “If they are suspended, they are missing valuable teaching that they cannot get back.”

Black acknowledged that there is still important work to be done. The district, she said, is not satisfied with the disproportionality and racial disparity in suspensions that are prevalent in the data.

She called for joint efforts through parental engagement and community-based programs that focus on awareness, mentorship and educating parents and others on the daily expectations that are shared responsibilities.

Michael Futch covers Fayetteville and education for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at mfutch@cityviewnc.com. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.

Cumberland County Schools, suspensions