ACCOMACK Co., Va. (Delmarva Now) -- In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity reported that Virginia led the nation in sending students from schools to the police or courts, a trend known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
Stemming from policies and practices that can push youth out of school, it’s a trend that disproportionately affects minority students, the data shows.
“What we want are engaged students and they cannot do that if they’re not in school,” said Leah Dozier Walker, community and minority affairs liaison for the Virginia Department of Education.
Walker was one of three panelists at a forum held at Eastern Shore Community College this month to address the phenomenon in area schools.
More than 30 parents, educators and other citizens came to the meeting hosted by Virginia Organizing to discuss how to break the cycle on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
In Accomack County Public Schools, 13 percent of all students received short-term suspensions in the 2015-2016 school year, the most recent year for which data is available.
“For every 1,000 students in Accomack County, 106 of them are suspended at least once (during the school year),” Walker said. “The state average is 54.”
For students of color in Accomack County, that number jumps to 128 students, compared to the state average of 74.
The trend holds true in Northampton County, where 140 of every 1,000 students were suspended, or 128 of every 1,000 students of color.
“You can see there’s some disproportionally here on the Eastern Shore,” Walker said.
To combat that, she says residents need to familiarize themselves with their local school boards and the policies they make.
According to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia, local school boards hold the sole authority over policy in public schools.
Accomack County recently voted in favor of an elected school board, a system that will start during the next local election cycle, in November 2019.
Northampton County made the switch to an elected school board several years ago.
“You really need to know who’s on your local school board and be a part of electing those officials — and holding them accountable,” said panelist Valerie Slater, an attorney and Reinvest in Supportive Environments for Youth coalition coordinator at the Legal Aid Justice Center.
“I encourage you to go to your local school division’s website, go to your school board page, download your local school board policy, read your student code of conduct, (and) identify where you see issues with that student code of conduct that may be contributing to this high rate of suspension,” Walker said.
“Then, you can advocate for specific changes to policy,” she said.
Chester Hall, coordinator of student services at Accomack County Public Schools, encouraged people to use that information to contact their local school boards.
“I want you guys to come and talk to me,” Hall said.
Hall encouraged residents to attend Accomack County School Board meetings on the third Tuesday of each month at 6:30 p.m. at the Board of Supervisors Chambers, located in the Accomack County Administration Building at 23296 Courthouse Ave. in Accomac.
The Northampton County School Board meets the second Monday of each month at 6:30 p.m. in the Northampton County Schools’ Administrative Building boardroom. Both meetings have public comment periods.
“Come into our schools,” Hall said. “I’m looking for mentors right now, I’m looking for tutors, I’m looking for SSM, which is student support monitors, I’m looking for aides.
“We have a great population in our schools that needs extra help,” he said. “They need extra resources and we only have but so many.”
Other suggestions from attendees included hosting parent education classes to help parents understand stages of development and useful child-rearing techniques; increasing support and professional development to help teachers to recognize behaviors indicative of problems at home; forming peer mediation programs in schools; and hosting cultural competency training.
“The school system cannot do it all,” Cropper said. “The community has to come into play and pick up where the school system leaves off.”
Virginia Organizing will hold its organizational meeting on Monday, Nov. 20, at 6 p.m. at the Mary N. Smith Cultural Center, in Accomac. The public is invited to attend the meeting, which will continue the conversation about school discipline.
Contact Virginia Organizing’s Eastern Shore Organizer, Meghan McNamara, at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Click here to see Virginia’s School Quality Profiles, which includes information such as student achievement by demographics.
Hall is available at 757-787-5754.