It was a sunny Tuesday afternoon. A hundred or so people were gathered outside of the Mecklenburg County Government Center. The last time I'd attended a rally here, the speakers spewed a "We love you but hate your sin!" message when City Council was considering a nondiscrimination ordinance that had to do with transgender people and bathrooms.
Today's gathering, however, emanated a completely different tone.
Jarrod Jones was one of the speakers at O.N.E. Charlotte's public action rally on May 12. He wasn't the least bit afraid of the microphone, using it to lead a cadence: "Who stands loud and proud for our students?" The crowd of students, teachers, parents, biker club members, church goers and other community members, many wearing black shirts in solidarity, yelled back: "O.N.E. Charlotte, O.N.E. Charlotte, O.N.E.!"
Later, after a brief warm-up that included people dancing to the "Wobble," Jones shared with the group the organization's purpose of being there that day. "O.N.E. Charlotte realized that we the people, you and I, us, we must bring a stop to this practice of suspending our students. We must bring an end to the school-to-prison pipeline that leads into this mass incarceration complex we have in our nation today."
And then, as if on cue, sirens blared in the background of the city. Jones paused for a brief moment as the alarms punctuated his point. They couldn't have timed it better.
"We're not doing this not only for a better today," he continued, "but we're doing this for the generations to come, so we can give them a better tomorrow."
O.N.E. Charlotte stands for One Network for Education and is comprised of volunteers working to better the education system. The organization came together in December 2013 for a series of house meetings with teachers, students and community members who were frustrated with North Carolina's cuts in spending for education. Their current initiative is advocating for restorative justice in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
According to data published by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, black students in CMS accounted for 77 percent of suspensions in the 2013-14 school year, despite only making up 41 percent of the student body.
"What that breaks is young black men in CMS, they received over 19,000 suspensions last year," says Charlene Mack, an organizer with O.N.E. Charlotte, "where white men were only suspended about 2,200 times. That's what we're looking to address: making sure there are alternatives to suspensions and keep kids in the classrooms."
At the rally, Lisa Guckian, a Teach for America alum and public school parent, elaborated on what these alternatives could look like: "Restorative Justice provides an entirely different way of thinking about student misconduct. It's a supportive approach to students. It assumes those most affected by misconduct actually have a hand in solving the problem. ... It could look like peer mediation; it could look like circles for talking through conflicts and processing feelings; it could look like a mentorship program. It could also look like reintegrating students after they've been suspended through positive and productive ways."
Suspension is the first stop on the school to prison pipeline, which the American Civil Liberties Union defines as "a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems."
"A student who is suspended even once is three times more likely to drop out by the tenth grade, than a student who has never been suspended," Guckian told the crowd. "Dropping out of high school triples your likelihood of eventual incarceration. Sixty-eight percent of inmates are high school dropouts.
"This can't be right, can it? This suggests a systemic problem, not one coming from our from students."
What's also disturbing is that in-school and out-of-school suspensions are often handed out for minor infractions like not wearing a uniform or being late for class because a student missed the bus.
Jess Miller, another O.N.E. Charlotte member and an education consultant, says she's had several students over the six years she taught in Baltimore and Charlotte missing out on time in the classroom for reasons like that. "I see that as something very counterproductive and sends a message to that child about the value of themselves and the value of their education."
Mack, a native Charlottean, agrees. "When I look at my nephews and nieces, and I see how they're perceived, or I see these misconceptions about how they're perceived, it is literally about creating a better today for them."
The May 12th Public Action, as O.N.E. Charlotte referred to that gathering, was held to seek a commitment from Superintendent Ann Clark to collaborate with the group and other organizations on instituting a pilot program to bring restorative justice to two high school feeder patterns.
"We sent a small delegation of representatives," says Miller, "including teachers, students and community members, into the School Board meeting to speak and present their stories about restorative justice and how these different alternatives to suspension can help improve school culture, reduce suspensions, make kids happier and safer, and ultimately lead to student achievement and the educational equity that we're looking for."
A study from the International Institute of Restorative Practices Graduate School reveals how effective restorative measures can be. West Philadelphia High School, which was on Pennsylvania's "Persistently Dangerous Schools" list for six years, implemented practices in fall 2008. According to school administrators, violent acts and serious incidents were down 52 percent in 2007–2008 compared to the previous school year.
CMS teacher Rashaunda Jackson shared outside the Government Center that she started practicing restorative justice in her second year of teaching — she taught eighth grade language arts to a classroom of all young men. When students got suspended, she'd reach out and let them know that when they returned to school, it would be a fresh start. "When those young males realized how much I cared, it totally changed the dynamics of our classroom. And when I see those students at the local high schools now, they still remember me."
CMS is already in its second year of working to decrease suspensions and make schools safer. The Race Matters for Juvenile Justice is a collaboration with members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, juvenile court judges, Youth and Family Services and others.
"Our partnership has focused on enhancing the CMS Code of Student Conduct handbook, placing greater emphasis on interventions and reducing the need for out-of-school suspensions and creating a diversion program for first-time student arrests," CMS Chief of Staff Earnest Winston told rally attendees.
He also shared that Superintendent Clark had invited O.N.E. Charlotte to attend the next Race Matters for Juvenile Justice meeting, and would meet with the group one on one. The crowd cheered.
On May 15, O.N.E. Charlotte representatives attended a Race Matters for Juvenile Justice meeting, and the following week met with Superintendent Clark and her support staff. There, they learned that three schools in the Vance Feeder Pattern, which feeds students in the Northeast Learning Community into Zebulon B. Vance High School, is already working to tackle some of the reasons why students of color are more likely to be suspended. Teachers in those schools have already received the second part of the Dismantling Racism training offered by Race Matters for Juvenile Justice.
O.N.E. Charlotte's Miller says CMS is partnering with an outside organization (the contract has not been finalized yet, which is why she wasn't more specific) to bring in more concrete restorative justice practices into the Vance Feeder Pattern and an additional feeder pattern for this upcoming fall. They have another meeting scheduled at the end of June to look at the discipline data to help determine what the second feeder pattern should be.
"We're really excited about what seems to be Ann Clark's personal sense of urgency when it comes to this matter," Miller says. "It's been clear in her communication with us that this is something she's invested in and looking to move forward."
As the May 12th Public Action came to a close that evening, Jarrod Jones jumped back on the mic and asked the crowd to circle up in celebration. The somberness from some of the speeches toting alarming statistics and testimonies of students who'd been or knew of someone who'd been suspended had washed away. The day's mission had been accomplished, it seemed.