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N.C. bill would toughen school discipline. Some say change may harm Black students.
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N.C. bill would toughen school discipline. Some say change may harm Black students.

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RALEIGH — North Carolina Republican lawmakers want to toughen how school discipline is handled, but Democrats warn that a change could lead to more minority students being suspended and dropping out.

The N.C. House approved legislation on Thursday that removes language from state law listing violations not serious enough for a long-term school suspension. That includes inappropriate language, noncompliance, dress code violations and minor physical alterations.

Republican lawmakers argue that including those four examples in state law has hamstrung principals, causing them to be reluctant to give any kind of suspensions for those behaviors.

“We should never be in a position where we’re condoning bad language, disrespect for teachers and administrative staff ... as just being a write-off,” said Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican and primary sponsor of the bill. “That has led to a bad, bad disservice for a decade to the kids who have been in our K-12 system.”

Those four examples were added to the law in 2011 in a bipartisan effort to reduce long-term suspensions of more than 10 days. The belief was that if students were in school more, they’d be less likely to have poor grades and drop out when they fell behind.

But Rep. Graig Meyer, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said removing those infractions ultimately will have unintended consequences and could negatively affect students, particularly students of color.

He tried unsuccessfully to introduce an amendment Thursday to restore the language listing the four examples.

“We believe that without this guide rail, the suspension rates, the long-term suspension rates ... will start to go back up for poor kids, Black kids, brown kids, students with disabilities, the most marginalized kids,” Meyer said.

House Bill 247 was approved 66-49 on partisan lines. All Republicans voted yes and all Democrats voted no.

The bill now goes to the Senate. The bill didn’t get enough support Thursday to override any potential veto from Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Short-term suspensions in North Carolina’s public schools dropped 24% between the 2010-11 school year, when the violations were added to the law. Long-term suspensions have dropped 78% in that time period.

North Carolina’s drop also coincides with a nationwide drop that came after the U.S. Department of Education sent guidance in 2014 warning school districts they could be investigated if minority students are suspended at disproportionately high rates.

The Trump Administration rescinded the 2014 guidance, citing a study commission report that found it “has likely had a strong, negative impact on school discipline and safety.”

Some North Carolina Republican lawmakers have the same concerns.

Torbett said Thursday that the 2011 changes “condoned foul language, disrespect for teachers, disrespect for administrative staff.”

“We have a chance to claw this back and make our kids the best that they can possibly be in every aspect,” Torbett said.

Democratic lawmakers pointed to how Black students received 54.9% of all short-term suspensions, even though they made up 24.8% of the state’s student population. The Southern Coalition for Social Justice says Black students were 3.9 times more likely to receive a short-term suspension than white students in North Carolina.

Rep. Amos Quick, a Guilford County Democrat, said lawmakers aren’t condoning bad behavior in opposing the bill.

“There’s a generation coming behind us who is going to change the way the society operates,” Quick said. “We have to be in touch with that generation — not destroy their spirit.”

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