Amid policy changes, criminal acts up in school district

(The Center Square) – A North Carolina school district that spent more than half a million dollars on policy changes in pursuit of equity has seen an uptick in crime in recent years while…

(The Center Square) – A North Carolina school district that spent more than half a million dollars on policy changes in pursuit of equity has seen an uptick in crime in recent years while short-term suspension disparities have continued, according to publicly available data.

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County School District reportedly began questioning its disciplinary policies in 2020. The school board has since voted to pay a nonprofit more than $600,000 to revamp its code of conduct to pursue more equitable disciplinary practices.

As the district’s equity policy was implemented and the code of conduct was revamped, the district of more than 50,000 students has reported increased criminal acts, according to disciplinary data available on the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s website.

Chalkboard Review, a project of the Franklin News Foundation, analyzed the total number of criminal acts and incident rates for individual schools going back to the 2015-16 school year based on data reported to the state.

The district did not release the current year’s data to Chalkboard Review. It says incidents of aggressive student behavior and fighting in the first three quarters of the 2022-23 school year have decreased compared to the same period in the 2018-19 school year.

These numbers do not appear on the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction’s tally of specified acts of crime and violence. The State Board of Education “is required to compile an annual report on acts of violence in the public schools.” The school year ends June 9.

The law requires the state board compile data on 16 different criminal acts. The latest report available is for the 2021-22 school year. According to the district’s statement and publicly available documents, the school’s equity policy was adopted in January 2020 and implemented in the 2021-22 school year.

The state-level data show that criminal acts have steadily risen. The 2021-22 school year had the highest ratio of criminal acts per student in the years analyzed by Chalkboard Review.

In the 2015-16 school year, there were 359 criminal acts in the district reported to the state education agency. The total number of acts per 1,000 students was 6.7 while the statewide average was 6.6 criminal acts per 1,000 students.

In the 2021-22 school year, when the district reported 587 criminal acts. The total number of criminal acts per 1,000 students was 11.4. The statewide average was 7.5 criminal acts per 1,000 students.

Statewide, there was a decrease in reported acts leading up to the pandemic, with a spike after students returned to the classroom. During the pandemic years, many school districts in the state were in varying forms of remote learning, and lost students to home-schooling or other offerings to receive instruction.

The district’s numbers before the pandemic were 363 criminal acts reported in 2016-17, 430 in 2017-18, and 543 in 2018-19. The pandemic struck on the second weekend of March in 2020 and students had remote instruction the remainder of the 2019-20 year.

In 2021-22, 286 of the acts were for possessing a controlled substance and 148 for weapons. The 91 assaults on school personnel were a 28.9% drop from the last full year before the pandemic, and 13 were at a single school, Cash Elementary, according to the state’s crime reporting data.

Assaults against school personnel numbered 76 in 2016-17, 69 in 2017-18 and 128 in 2018-19.

The district told Chalkboard Review that they see that assaults are down compared with last school year and said mental health problems are looming large.

“What is on the rise are mental health concerns and the number of students requesting mental health services or exhibiting the need for more intensive mental health supports,” said Brent Campbell, the external relations officer for the district.

The district says it is working on changing behaviors by focusing on mental health and instating a new code of conduct which was made in partnership with Engaging Schools. The district’s board voted to pay Engaging Schools $198,000 in 2021 and an additional $410,000 in 2022, which came from federal COVID-19 relief funds.

In 2021, a district leader told NBC News it was changing policies after seeing racial disparities in student discipline.

“A large portion of our strategic plan as we move forward is equity and making sure that we look at things through an equity lens within the district,” Deputy Superintendent Jesse Pratt told NBC at the time.

The school district’s short-term suspension rate for Black students in 2018-19 was about 59% of all suspensions, according to data given to the state. The percentage of Black students suspended in the 2021-22 school year was unchanged at 59%.

The district says on its website that Black students comprise 29.4% of the student body.

“This entire year we have taken a preventative and proactive approach through Social Emotional Learning in schools, licensed therapists, trauma-informed and restorative practices training for staff, and a focus on changing behaviors through the implementation of a new code of character, conduct and support,” Campbell said. “That code starts with setting clear districtwide expectations for students followed by consistent protocols.”

The code of conduct is being implemented this school year.