Community Voices Concerns about Durham Schools’ Discipline Disparities

Community members share experiences in differences in discipline actions taken in Durham schools

By Celia Funderburk

In 2019, Sahir Rivera was a first-year at Durham School of the Arts. During this time, he said that while he enjoyed the school, he was not the best student, as he ditched class and was sent to in-school suspension (ISS) repeatedly.

Rivera was introduced to a fight club, where he and his friends would go to the school’s bathroom and “roughhouse.” People would bust a lip or get a bloody nose, but it wasn’t too violent. Videos of their fights began to spread on social media and eventually, the school found out. 

He said the school was run like a tight ship, where the administration wanted “only the best.” The administration started labeling this fight club as a gang and Rivera, a Latino, as the gang leader. 

“And after they got the videos, they got everyone they could find in those videos and wanted to see who was the leader,” he said.

Rivera had no record beyond ISS, but an administrator guided Rivera to his office and told him that his punishment was “long-term suspension” and being sent to Lakeview, nearby alternative school. 

“They could have done many different things to help me out, but I think they just took the easiest way out,” he said. “We can’t deal with him, so here, you do it.”

Rivera was sent away to a place he said felt like a prison, with metal detectors at the doors and no phones allowed. 

According to a 2023 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, schools with student bodies that are predominantly students of color are more likely to take serious disciplinary action on their students over predominantly white schools.

Kevin Primus, a father of five former students of Durham Public Schools (DPS), has been involved in school advocacy, which brought these discipline disparities to his attention, especially those based on race.

During the 2022 school year, Primus was a part of the Riverside School Improvement team and was tasked to look into claims from Hispanic students being scared to come to school because they were being harassed by the school resource director, Deputy Scott Tanner. 

Before being placed at Riverside, Tanner was fired from the Durham Police Department in 2007, following an internal investigation around an incident where he allegedly assaulted a cook outside of a Raleigh restaurant and exchanged racial slurs. 

Primus went to court with one of the six families who had an experience with Tanner. The student had a ticket for driving without a license, but this confused Primus and he asked the student how Tanner knew he didn’t have a license. The student told Primus that Tanner claimed he was speeding in the school’s parking lot.

“The ticket said 9:10 in the morning, you have to be there by nine,” he said ”But if you’re there at nine, there’s still a line of cars. So at 9:10, there’s still a lot of cars to get to school — there isn’t a place to do donuts. And, who does donuts at 9:10 in the morning? It made no sense.” 

Primus said as he learned more about the incident, it became clear Tanner was acting discriminatory because Tanner also looked up the record of the student’s mother. The student told Primus Tanner threatened the student with the information that she didn’t have a license either.

“What is your problem?” Primus said. “Like what is your beef with this kid that you would go through all that trouble to find out that his mother doesn’t have a [license], so he’s not just threatening kids.” 

Rivera said he noticed differences in discipline in fourth grade when his school banned soccer, the sport most of the Hispanics played. He also watched as students were treated differently based on their intellect. 

Primus said a reason for poor discipline in schools is teachers not being equipped to handle behavior. He said this challenge stems from teachers not having adequate experience and teaching in an ill-fit district. 

While teachers want to think they are trained for everything, he said they sometimes break down when they can’t handle behavior. 

“You have to ask, ‘Is it my fault for not being bilingual? Is it my fault for not learning Spanish fast enough? Isn’t the school district’s fault for not having the support? Isn’t the state’s fault for not figuring out what we do with kids who don’t speak English?’” Primus said. 

Rivera said that discipline needs to begin at home. When he was growing up, he would often act out of displaced anger when things at home were not OK. 

“Some kids, they go to school just to get a meal,” he said. “Some kids, they go to school just to leave problems at home. Some kids, they don’t want to be home because they have an abusive figure at home.” 

He said teachers should learn more about students’ home lives to know why students might be acting out.

“It’s gonna take a lot more than just things at school, it’s to get very close with students because things aren’t like how they used to be,” he said. “It used to be a community, everything used to be united.” 

Edited by: Abigail Keller

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