It started as a simple schoolgirl spat about a boy. One was dating the other's friend, and when she started flirting with other boys, the two became rivals.
The two girls were "picking and taunting" at each other for three months, Tammie Hansley said of her daughter, Sarah Redden. Sarah and her classmate, both ninth graders at Wakefield High School, never fought physically, although they came close one day. After each entered mediation and received a warning, Sarah admits sending a MySpace message from her home computer threatening to beat up the other girl.
Two days later, Sarah, 15, her mother says, had no prior incidents, arrived at her mother's workplace in the back of a police car. Sarah was suspended for the rest of the school year for intimidation and making a threat.
It would be 68 class days and three appeals later before Sarah returned to the classroom, at an alternative school, Mary E. Phillips, two hours away from home. This week she'll return to traditional school.
Sarah is one of the 1,021 students to receive long-term suspension in Wake County in the 2008–09 school year. In a state that ranks among the top five in the U.S. in out-of-school suspensions, Wake County's numbers outpace those in the rest of North Carolina. One-quarter of all long-term suspensions in the state came from Wake County. And it's not just how many students are being expelled, but who: a disproportionately high number of black males and freshmen, school data shows.
In light of this finding, Wake County school administrators are amending their disciplinary policies, including examining zero tolerance and the definition of "long-term." By changing the policy, they hope to keep more kids in school while maintaining a safe campus environment.
Jason Langberg, an attorney with Advocates for Children's Services who represented Sarah during the appeals, is pleased that his calls for reform are being heard. But he says many questions, such as identifying viable alternatives to suspension, have not been answered.
"The message that gets sent to them is, 'We don't care about you. Good luck, hope you have some support somewhere else,'" says Langberg.
"It generates these feelings of alienation and causes kids to feel like they are failures. That low self-esteem leads to unemployment and involvement in gangs ... I don't think it's any coincidence that we also have this schools-to-prison pipeline."
William Lassiter, communications director for the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, agrees with Langberg's assessment.
"Of the kids that come into the juvenile justice system, 60 percent have serious school problems when they come to the front door. They are either suspended, expelled or dropped out," Lassiter says.
In the last fiscal year, 802 Wake County students entered the juvenile justice system for school-based complaints, 91 percent of which were misdemeanors. These suspended kids make up a third of the total caseload for the juvenile court. On average, 41 percent of juvenile court cases come directly from the school.
Lassiter, who served as manager of the Center for the Prevention of School Violence, a state agency, says students who are in jail or detention centers are likely to have been suspended.
In addition, students who are older than 15 are prosecuted as adults under North Carolina law. The state is one of only two in the nation with such a rule. A junior or senior who is suspended is at risk of going to jail, depending on the offense. The incident would also be listed on the student's adult criminal record.
Lassiter says when he visits juvenile detention centers and asks how many of the kids have been suspended from school in the past, nearly everyone raises his hand.
The number of all crimes committed by juveniles has dropped during the past decade, Lassiter says, while suspension numbers have remained flat. Schools, armed with zero-tolerance policies, refer minor incidents to police, Langberg argues. He says school resource officers uniformed police stationed at every Wake County public middle and high school—are often too quick to intervene.
Wake County Assistant Superintendent for Support Services Marvin Connelly is charged with curbing the trend. A former Knightdale High School principal, Connelly says the number of students with long-term suspensions has hovered near 1,000 annually since 2006. The number of short-term suspensions—those lasting up to 10 days—average 20,000 per academic year.
"We're certainly not about putting kids out of school," Connelly says. "At the same time, we've got to maintain discipline."
Connelly is leading a task force studying suspensions and has identified four strategies. The district must craft a more consistent code of conduct, better sync up punishments to fit offenses, examine other districts that have been able to reduce suspension rates and develop new services—mental health, social skills management, etc.—to aid students who could be at risk of long-term suspension.
The district took a major first step last week when the Wake County Board of Education unanimously approved a motion to redefine "long-term" suspension.
Previously, principals had two options: suspend a student for up to 10 days or ban him or her for the entire school year. Under the new definition, a student could be suspended for any length of time between 10 days and an entire school year.
This is important because, in the past, if two students committed the same violation but one did it the first week of class and another did it during the spring, the length of the punishment would be different for the same offense.
The board must pass the measure another time before it's adopted.
At the Sept. 7 meeting, Connelly also plans to push the board to examine zero-tolerance policies. While the state has mandated that certain offenses, for example, bringing a gun to school, require long-term suspension, Wake County has its own rules that exceed the state's list. For example, students who participate in a 2-on-1 fight are automatically punished, as are students who have drugs at school.
Langberg cautions that reducing suspensions will require revising the school's enforcement culture, not just the written rules.
"The biggest problem we have isn't necessarily zero-tolerance written policies but zero-tolerance mind-sets and zero-tolerance practices," Langberg says.
Camille White's son, Lawrence, was a freshman at Millbrook High School in 2007–08 when a senior reportedly flipped his lunch tray in the cafeteria. He fought back. A school resource officer was called. Lawrence was put in a police car and later charged with assault and battery. He was suspended for the last two and a half months of the school year.
White's family argues that he was wrongly prosecuted and that witnesses gave false testimony about the buildup to the fight.
"I think Lawrence was profiled," White says. "I think (the principal) saw this big, tall black kid, and she assumed that he would be aggressive."
His case was thrown out of the juvenile court, but the incident has stayed on his record.
Most of Wake County's suspended students are African-American. Although they made up just over a quarter of Wake County students in 2008–09, African-Americans composed 62 percent of short-term, and 68 percent of long-term, suspensions, according to Langberg's research.
Advocates contend that suspended students are not provided with a sufficient education while out of school. Connelly says students are set up with online courses but only for English and math, which are on standardized tests.
"Kids need to be in school, and if you want to do everyone a service, that's where they need to be," says Patty Williams, a parent and organizer with Great Schools in Wake Coalition. "We need to come up with good alternatives to suspending them out of school."
Lawrence says he felt unprepared when he had to take his freshman tests, because he had not received instruction on several subjects.
"I was just at home. I really wasn't doing anything at all," Lawrence says.
Students also may be eligible for homebound instruction, but some, like White, receive little or no instruction at all. None of those options are viable, Langberg says.
"A great percentage of kids get absolutely nothing, and who knows where those kids end up, but they definitely fall through the cracks," he says.
Hansley, Sarah's mother, says that, without teachers, Sarah's grades declined from A's and B's to her failing her end-of-course tests.
Teachers also have to compensate for the kids' setbacks.
"There hasn't been something in place to keep them up with what was missed," says Tama Bouncer, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. "Then the teacher has to work that much more hard to bring that child up to speed with everyone else."
Knowing that she was falling behind, and missing her friends, Sarah often pleaded with her parents to let her go back to school.
Sarah wants to go to college and work in the field of animal welfare. But to do that, she has to stay in school.
"I don't want to be like kids that drop out and don't get their high school diploma," she says. "Because I have a dream."