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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — In the two years before Dr. Tricia McManus became superintendent of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, there were 9,000 out-of-school suspensions. That’s out of about 55,000 students.

“And we know there’s a direct correlation between students being in school and students learning,” McManus said. “So if we say our goal is to improve student achievement and you’re excluding students from instruction and you have 9,000 suspensions that’s a problem in and of itself.”

When district leadership looked at the numbers, they found Black students are five times more likely to be suspended than white students. Hispanic students are twice as likely.

“Those numbers are not a surprise to me. I’ve lived that experience,” Board of Education member Alex Bohannon said.

He graduated from Parkland High School.

“This isn’t something that just happened. It’s not something that just started to happen over time. It’s not based on any particular superintendent’s presence or anything like that. It’s something that’s been pervasive in our district for quite some time.”

District leadership acknowledges past efforts to address the gap failed. So the board approved nearly $200,000 to bring in the non-profit Engaging Schools.

“I will say that a reduction in suspensions is what we have to get to. If you look at the disciplinary infractions, and that’s a part of our deeper dive right now with Engaging Schools, looking into what caused the suspensions,” McManus said.

Engaging Schools will help the district do a deep dive into data and practices, work with community stakeholders, and train staff.

“What are the expectations around if a student does do something that does deserve a consequence, what are the consequences that are going to actually be consequences that are more restorative and are going to help students learn the next time,” McManus said.

Based on the findings, they’ll revamp the Student Code of Conduct.

“So what we’re doing right now is analyzing the language in our Code of Conduct. Is it restorative in nature? Because to actually change these numbers, we have to approach student conduct, student management of behavior in a restorative way.”

In the last full in-person school year, 2018-19, the top reason for suspensions for Black and Hispanic students was fighting. For white students, it was aggressive behavior. Beyond that, the top reasons for suspensions were insubordination, disorderly conduct, and disruptive behavior, which are all subjective.

“I’m talking about the disruptive behaviors that happen most of the time because of what’s in that child’s backpack that we can’t see,” McManus said. “What’s hidden, what is that trauma they might be coming in with?”

Right now Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools district employees are focusing on how they utilize school resource officers. This summer a pilot program started at Reagan and Carver high schools.

“It started as getting our kids and officers to work together in restorative circles so that they can talk to each other…where the resource officers learn more about our students and the things that they’re facing and dealing with in their own lives, and also have the students get to know their resource officers more,” McManus said.

“When you address the discipline issues, the disproportionate application of discipline, when you value students when you create an environment and culture that socializes students to have belief in self, to develop belief in self and confidence, that translates to what they believe they’re capable of, and therefore they will reach for higher heights,” Bohannon said.

He said that benefits the entire community because a rising tide lifts all boats.