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NAACP, Lee school district reach accord

By Staff | Aug 23, 2018

The Lee County Florida Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Lee County School District reached an agreement this week, resulting in NAACP dropping a civil rights complaint filed last September.

The complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education, which alleged that black students were disciplined disproportionally to white students, as well as disproportionately held back, will be dropped in return to the adoption of district practices.

Ricky Watson Jr., co-director of the Youth Justice Project at Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said he believes they were successful in doing what they were really hoping to do – draw attention to issues and open up the lines of communication to get on the right track.

The mutual agreement between NAACP and the School District of Lee County states, “The district recognizes that racial equity is an integral part of a public school education and that racial equity and the mission of the district require that all students be provided equitable educational opportunities.”

The agreement states that the district is committed to ensuring to the maximum extent possible that “its student discipline policies and procedures are designed and implemented in such a way as to ensure that disciplinary sanctions do not include the loss of educational instruction time for any students . . .”

The exception lies within cases to ensure immediate safety of students and staff. It further states that the district will ensure the student is not removed from the educational program to the maximum extent possible.

Lee County School District Director of Student Services Dr. Pete Bohatch said they are excited about the opportunity of working to keep kids in school.

Students with out-of-school suspensions are more inclined to drop out of school, which further leads them to being out on the street making bad decisions.

“As a former principal, I can tell you that out-of-school suspension is the last resort. They see that as a vacation,” he said.

Two years ago the district revised its Code of Conduct, providing principals with more flexibility with what types of consequences to enforce. Before, every offense led to out-of-school suspension. The revision gives staff the opportunity to work with students, Bohatch said.

Over the past three years, the district has seen a significant reduction in out-of-school suspension across the district for kindergarten through 12th grade students.

Bohatch said NAACP is satisfied with the way the district is headed in keeping kids in school.

“I don’t believe out-of-school suspension can go away entirely. I really believe we need to have it for the more serious offenses,” he said, citing battery or bringing weapons on campus.

Out-of-school suspension should be reduced for minor offenses, Bohatch said.

The concerns were in regards to matters of equity – discipline and academic achievement – in the school district, Watson Jr. said.

“The complaint we filed was meant to draw attention to that . . . conversations that were essential and needing to happen,” he said. “We were trying to come up with the solutions to be meaningful and impactful with students in Lee County.”

Now that the two groups have created an agreement, he believes this is where the real work begins.

“We will be able to see how committed Lee County schools is to staying true to what we agreed upon and the spirit of what we agreed upon in the coming months,” Watson Jr. said, adding that he hopes that the school district will prove that coming to the agreement was the right thing to do. “I hope they will put their money where their mouth is.”

The agreement stems around the district continuing six current practices:

n Fund the Office of Diversity and Inclusion

n Use restorative practices and alternatives to suspension

n Provide ongoing training about structural racism, implicit bias and disparities

n Review student disciplinary processes and gather community input

n Allocate resources in a manner that allows schools that are in the most need to receive additional funding

n Data already collected on referrals for discipline, referrals to law enforcement and expulsions will now be shared with other schools

Bohatch said the district began restorative practices about three years ago in phases. The first year all the high schools were trained, followed by middle schools the second year and elementary schools the third year. The practices were done through a train to trainer model.

“Every high school was required to send a team of up to four from their school for training. Those four folks would take that information to train the staff back at the school,” he said. “Some schools are utilizing the practices better than others.”

Lehigh Middle School has been a champion with restorative practices. Bohatch said they are using such practices as peer mediation, an accountability board and respect agreements.

Another school, Dunbar Middle, has also implemented a restorative practice called a walk about. If there is a student disturbing class, the teacher sends a text message to administration, who then comes to the classroom and takes over the lesson while the teacher and student go for “a walk about.”

“The teacher and student go for a walk and talk about the behavior. They are talking and trying to repair what happened in the classroom,” Bohatch said.

The restorative practices is creating a culture of caring and mutual respect, while building a relationship and talking through things, he said.

The new practices outlined in the agreement include conveying quarterly community forums and public conversations, as well as provide training on the appropriate use and engagement of School Resource Officers.

Bohatch said NAACP wants organized forums, which they experimented with last year at the Stars Complex. He said it was not as well attended as hoped, but important information was provided for those in attendance.

“We have to figure out, in my opinion, a better time and location because parents work. Maybe doing something at a church? Maybe on a Saturday? They want the outreach. We are going to do what we can,” Bohatch said.

In May, Jarrett Eady started his new role as the director of Diversity and Inclusion. He reports directly to the superintendent.

“He grew up in Lee County and is a product of the Lee County school system. He is wonderful. Most of his work is going to center around the training piece,” Bohatch said. “The training is so necessary because we are so diverse in Lee County.”

He said the district’s commitment to NAACP is the right thing to do and a professional director dedicated to that charge is needed.