House committee advances bill to erase language in law describing minor offenses that lead to school suspensions

By: - March 14, 2023 5:00 pm
Rep. Marcia Morey (Right)

A bill stripping language from current law that provides examples of student conduct that’s not serious enough for suspension or expulsion received a favorable hearing Tuesday before the House Standing Committee on Education – K-12.

House Bill 188 removes from state law the use of inappropriate or disrespectful language, noncompliance with a staff directive, dress code violations and minor physical altercations that do not involve weapons or injury as misconduct that is not serious enough to warrant lengthy suspensions or expulsions.

The bill is sponsored by a team of Republicans including committee leaders Rep. John Torbett of Gaston County and Rep. Hugh Blackwell of Burke County. If passed into law, it would give principals and school boards greater authority to suspend or expel students for offenses that a currently not considered serious enough to warrant those actions.

HB 188 was referred to the Judiciary 1 Committee.

Torbett said the state has been too lax the past 20 years in enforcing school discipline.

“Without discipline that effectively addresses the issue, it will ultimately bring down the demise of our civilization because it will begin to spread out into the general population and get worse and worse and worse,” Torbett said.

As it stands, Torbett said, students are allowed to hurl profanity at teachers without fear of punishment.

“Guys, those days have got to stop,” Torbett said.

A proposed amendment offered by Rep. Marcia Morey, a Durham Democrat, to restore the language the bill strikes from law, failed mostly along party lines.

Morey said it’s important that the state provide guidance about what offenses rise to the level of suspension or expulsion.

“I’m asking that we go back to what’s already been in law, which gives guidance to principals and let’s define what are not serious violations,” Morey said.

Torbett urged colleagues to vote against the amendment, arguing that it would gut HB 188.

Rep. Ken Fontenot, a Republican from Wilson, said that whether violations are serious is a matter of perspective.

“Whose to say what is minor when your bully is 6 feet 3 inches [tall] and you happen to be 4 feet 5 inches [tall]?” Fontenot asked. “Minor is a matter of conjecture and subjective ideas.”

Morey countered that long-term suspension aren’t minor and should be reserved for offenses that are more serious than those described in law as too minor to warrant long-term suspension or expulsion.

“We’re just saying that the worst thing a child needs is a long-term suspension if it is a minor offense, a dress code [violation], not getting out of the bus line, that is minor,” Morey said. “Do not allow that to lead to the most draconian punishment of an out-of-school suspension.”

The former juvenile court judge said that students who serve out-of-school suspensions are more likely to become involved in the juvenile court system than those who have not been suspended.

She also noted the racial disparity in school suspensions.

“Students that are suspended are three to four times more likely to be African American and twice more likely to have disabilities,” Morey said. “Let’s use our common sense and call a minor violation what it is.”

The state’s recent Consolidated Data Report on school discipline and violence show that while consistent with pre-pandemic trends, racial minorities, low-income students and males were more likely to face disciplinary actions such as short- or long-term suspensions or placements in alternative schools for disciplinary reasons.

The largest reported increase from the 2018-19 school year was the rate of long-term suspensions among Black students, which was 85 per 100,000 students in 2018-19 and 103 per 100,000 students in 2021-22.

The current law calls on school boards and other K-12 governing bodies to use “best practices to develop and enforce discipline policies that do not discriminate against students on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender or disability.

State officials compared the 2021-22 school year to the pre-pandemic 2018-19 school year because in-person school attendance was in consistent throughout the pandemic.

HB 188 would also require school board or other governing bodies to include measures districts will take to support students during a suspension and to spell out procedures to be followed by school officials when assigning students to in school suspension.

The bill also encourages school officials to consider in-school suspension over punishment that removes a student from school.

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.