school suspensions end in Wilmington, North Carolina

Sitting in the front row at every New Hanover County School Board meeting, Peter Rawitsch and Veronica McLaurin-Brown can be seen sporting white t-shirts and pins reading “Love Our Children.”

At first, Rawitsch and McLaurin-Brown were a two-person team, but over the past year they’ve seen their organization grow into dozens of others wearing white t-shirts with blue lettering speaking on behalf of some. of the district’s youngest learners. . And this did not go unnoticed by the members of the board of directors.

“I have a belief that you can change things, but it takes diligence and commitment and trying to be strategic,” McLaurin-Brown told StarNews. “As an African American, I am living proof of change and the power of change. But it didn’t come easily, and it didn’t come quickly.

Rawitsch and McLaurin-Brown crossed paths at a school board meeting nearly a year ago. They said they knew as a team they would be a force to be reckoned with, between Rawitsch’s love of education and his data-based arguments he presents to the school board, and McLaurin-Brown’s personal experience of her career in New Hanover County schools. .

Since then, they have pleaded together for a cause they are passionate about: putting an end to the school suspensions of children aged 4, 5, 6 and 7.

Talk to “anyone who wants to listen”

Rawitsch, a retired educator who taught first grade for nearly four decades, began attending school board meetings as a volunteer for the NAACP Parent Council to lobby for the district to end suspensions of non-enrollment of primary school pupils.

It was there that he met McLaurin-Brown. He said he was captivated by her first-hand experience in the school district and her eloquent speech, as she described the suspension of young students as a metaphorical way of kneeling on a child’s neck, making reference to the death of George Floyd in May 2020.

“I was hearing a real voice from Wilmington, someone who had been in the school district for over 30 years and really knew who you know, spoke from the heart and spoke from direct experience. And I thought, you know, this is someone I want to talk to,” Rawitsch said.

They started sending emails back and forth, and when the school board voted 7-0 against ending elementary school suspensions in March 2021, they decided to team up and continue their cause. They started working on a project they called Listen, Inform, Educate.

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This quickly grew into Love Our Children, an organization they founded to advocate against the suspension of K-2 students. They said the name sounded “bulletproof” to their cause, and soon they began handing out pins, t-shirts, and even paid for a billboard advertising their organization in Wilmington.

They also started talking to “anyone who wanted to listen”. Starting from the top down, they sat down and had conversations with the seven council members about their efforts. They held meetings in the park with community members wanting to learn more, created social media accounts, funded radio ads and flyers. In less than a year, a petition they started has grown from just a few signatures to over 200, and their leadership team has grown from just two to six dedicated advocates who attend and speak at almost every meeting of the board of directors.

Advocates began taking much of the appeal at school board meeting hearing sessions, and they were directly referenced as a ‘taking up all our time’ issue when board chair Stephanie Kraybill suggested to change the public comment session into a lottery system.

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Speakers spend a lot of time planning their speeches and they have gradually become more creative: during one speech, McLaurin-Brown played audio of a child crying in the background to demonstrate how bad behavior can be a distraction, but is not a reason to kick a child out of school. Rawitsch even wrote and performed a song during a meeting.

“For you to think about changing and moving forward with anything, you have to become uncomfortable, and that’s what we do,” McLaurin-Brown said.

A Rosa Parks Moment

Even though month after month Love Our Children advocates see little to no change, they said it wouldn’t discourage them from coming to every board meeting and continuing to push the board. At the February board meeting, Superintendent Charles Foust said the district is on track to end school suspensions for the district’s youngest learners over the next three years, but Rawitsch and McLaurin -Brown said it wasn’t soon enough.

McLaurin-Brown said the group decided to advocate ending suspensions specifically for children in kindergarten through second grade because it felt like “low hanging fruit.” Rawitsch said the request is reasonable and feasible to keep students in school, especially those who are already disadvantaged.

“That should be at the top of their (school board’s) list…you can’t justify hurting them,” he said.

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Out-of-school suspensions affect students of color at a much higher rate than white students, especially in low-income Wilmington neighborhoods. In New Hanover County schools, nearly 300 out of 1,000 black students received a short-term out-of-school suspension in 2020, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Meanwhile, only 37 out of 1,000 white students were suspended in 2020.

Similarly, 178 out of 1,000 economically disadvantaged students and 248 out of 1,000 students with disabilities were suspended in 2020, according to the North Carolina DPI.

According to statistics quoted by Love Our Children on its website40% of elementary school suspensions were for students in kindergarten through second grade, and the top reasons for elementary-age student suspensions were aggressive or disruptive behavior.

These statistics are dire, McLaurin-Brown said, and after seeing the impact of out-of-school suspension on students throughout her work in the school system, she said she knew he it was time for her to act. She described meeting Rawitsch and beginning her work on Love Our Children as her “Rosa Parks” moment. She realized she couldn’t wait any longer; she had to do something now. So she and Rawitsch will continue to show up, and each month they get more support from other members of the community.

“If we punish children because they live in poverty and they live in homes with no education, and we expect them to have these things when they arrive, we have failed the child, we failed our society, we failed the purpose of school,” she said.

Reporter Sydney Hoover can be reached at 910-343-2339 or [email protected]

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