LUMBERTON — An organized effort by a group of parents and concerned residents to banish corporal punishment in the schools hit a wall at the Tuesday meeting of the Board of Education of the Public Schools of Robeson.
Acting on the recommendation of Superintendent Shanita Wooten, the board voted 9-1 to refer the question of paddling in the schools to the Policy Committee.
A half dozen speakers pleaded with the board to end corporal punishment. Led by Beth Jacobs Hunt and Jessica Lowry Clark, the group said they had commitments from six board members going into the meeting, but the support evaporated after a lengthy discussion about procedure.
“I’ve been on both sides of this issue,” said board member Craig Lowry, who had committed to end paddling in school. “We’ve heard only one side of this issue.
“I am not in favor of changing policy at one meeting,” Lowry said. “I am for sending this to the Policy Committee.”
Brian Freeman, who served as chairman of the meeting, said parents’ choices have to be respected. Current school policy requires parental consent for their children to be paddled.
“It’s not fair to take away parents’ rights to choose,” said Freeman, a former Robeson County school teacher. “We’ve heard the cons. We need to hear to the pros.”
Board member Brenda Fairley-Ferebee spoke passionately in opposition to corporal punishment, noting that Robeson County is one of only two school districts in North Carolina that allows paddling. She made a motion to abolish the practice beginning with the 2018-19 school year, but a substitute motion by Steve Martin prevailed.
“This is the same issue that faced every other school district,” Fairley-Ferebee said. “We don’t need to send this to the committee to do away with a policy, and it won’t cost us a dime to do it.”
In the end, Loistine DeFreece, a long-time Robeson County educator, was the only dissenting vote.
“I was asked if I would support a ban on corporal punishment, and I said yes,” DeFreece said. “If I had known there was a plan, I would have said no.”
The superintendent reminded the board of its vote in March to pay for a revision of all school policies.
“A countywide code of conduct is in the works,” Wooten said. “I encourage you to follow the process.
“We have other disciplinary programs that are not working and need revision. We need a uniform standard for all schools.”
Afterward, Hunt and Clark said they were disappointed, but not defeated.
“They avoided the issue,” Hunt said. “We will continue to educate the community.”
“We’re not going away,” Clark said. “We’re going to continue to lobby the board.
“I am disappointed that six members of the school board did not even respond to our calls.”
The opponents of corporal punishment used the public comment period to make their point. They said all the studies indicate that there are no positives to using a paddle on students, some of whom have disabilities and life issues.
The record shows that about 80 percent of the corporal punishment in North Carolina is delivered at one Robeson County school, Prospect Elementary.
In other action, board members voted unanimously on a three-year contract for Wooten that ends June 30, 2021, and comes with a $183,996.96 per-year salary. The contract also comes with a 1 percent administrative personnel supplement.
Board members also voted unanimously to petition the Robeson County Board of Commissioners to initiate a $50 million local bond issue in November.
Board member Mike Smith proposed the issue and said the General Assembly is planning a $1.9 billion bond vote for public school construction.
“That would give Robeson County $60 million,” Smith said. “We were in this situation before, and $60 million does not go far in Robeson County.
“With $50 million more, we can get some real construction done.”
The board will finalize a petition to the county during its May meeting. The county commissioners have the final word on a vote.
Two issues hanging over the school board from flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew were discussed: short-term options for housing the central office and what school, or schools, will West Lumberton students attend next year.
The lease for office space at the Angel Exchange building in Pembroke will expire on July 31, Superintendent Wooten said. She asked the board’s pleasure on negotiating a new lease or seeking other quarters.
With no funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and no insurance compensation available, the schools are paying $9,118 a month in rent for space in the Angel Exchange building. The county commissioners offered to buy Angel Exchange for use as a central office, but the school board rejected the offer.
“We have not found a single location,” Wooten said.
“The lease (at Angel Exchange) is likely to go up,” Craig Lowry said. “We have 64 people who need to be all in one place to be effective.”
“We need a plan B, so I’m challenging Dr. Wooten and her team to come up with a plan,” Freeman said.
The board members decided to close the West Lumberton Elementary School’s pre-kindergarten program, which was facing costs up to $30,000 to provide a playground at its current location at Lumberton Junior High.
Assistant Superintending Elizabeth Younce told the board that enrollment has fallen off so much after the flood at both schools that the pre-K programs can easily fit into W.H. Knuckles Elementary.
West Lumberton, with an enrollment of about 90, has been housed at the junior high since the flood in October 2016. The state will not recognize a school so small.
“The whole school needs to be closed,” Mike Smith said.
Board Chairwoman Peggy Chavis Wilkins said, “I told the media that we would give the parents the option of transferring to another school that has room.”
Upon the advice of board attorney Grady Hunt, school administrators will study demographics and other issues and make a recommendation. A public hearing is also needed, he said.
State Rep. Charles Graham reported on the progress of the state Legislature’s School Safety Committee. He cited as possibilities including more school resource officers, physically securing schools and additional school psychologists and counselors.
“We want funding to come with this legislation,” Graham said.
The school board will give to the county an acre of land behind the Indian Education building, which was formerly Pembroke High School. The county plans to sell the land to The University of North Carolina at Pembroke for its planned expansion of the School of Business.
Board members agreed to give to the county four acres of land in Midway, with the former Liberty School on it. County Commissioner Berlester Campbell hopes to build a recreation center there.
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]