CHAPEL HILL- Parents, students and concerned community members are calling on the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board to change discipline and suspension policies that they say unfairly target African-American and Latino students.

Karen Reid is a retired teacher from the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district. She was one of twenty speakers on Thursday who asked the school board to re-assess discipline policies, specifically with regard to how school resource officers handle incidents with students.

“They need training on child development. They are doing their job, they are arresting our children, and our children have to pay for it,” said Reid. “It’s just not a good start for them in their lives. This school system is better than that.”

Reid and others argued that school resource officers are too often called upon to handle minor incidents in schools, resulting in the criminalization of non-violent behavior.

James Williams is a public defender in Orange and Chatham Counties. He said the discipline and suspension policies are unfairly applied to minority students, setting many on a pathway to failure.

“Discipline inequity is a denial of equal educational opportunity for children of color,” said Williams. “When you look at the data its clear that there’s significant racial disparity in how school discipline issues are handled in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system. It doesn’t have to be that way.”

According to data collected by school officials, African-American and Latino students each make up about 12 percent of the student body, but account for a majority of in-school suspensions.

“Forty percent of all students who received in-school suspensions in our district were African-American students, 21 percent Latino students and 31 percent white students,” Dr. Rodney Trice told the board.

School board members including James Barrett acknowledged that racial disparity in discipline is a long-standing problem, one the board is committed to addressing.

“We like to think of ourselves as a very enlightened community but this is an area that we’ve struggled with for a long time,” said Barrett. “It’s an area that we’re obviously not proud of, but does exist. This conversation shows that we’re not sweeping it under the rug and we’re committed to making a difference here.”

School officials said one solution may be to clarify the roles and responsibilities of school resource officers, and to track which cases are referred to the criminal justice system. Greg McElveen said officers are called in to handle situations that would be better managed by administrators.

“When you talk about a recommended partnership between police and courts and schools, that partnership will include very specific restrictions on what school resource officers can do,” said McElveen.

School resource officers are  law enforcement personnel from the Chapel Hill and Carrboro Police Department who are assigned to the district’s middle and high schools. Both Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue and newly appointed Carrboro Police Chief Walter Horton were on hand to listen to the discussion, but neither commented to the board.

Other solutions include additional training for teachers and school resource officers, publishing data on suspensions on a quarterly basis and assigning school work groups to review student discipline outcomes.

No decisions were made at Thursday’s meeting, but administrators will begin reviewing discipline and suspension protocols throughout the district.