HANOVER, Va. (WRIC) — The advisory board that helped write Hanover schools’ equity policy has made recommendations for the district each year since it formed in late 2018, but one member said there’s been “no movement” on their top priorities.

The Community Equity Advisory Board was created, in part, to address a goal outlined in Hanover County Public Schools’ “Long Range Plan” for 2017-2023, which states that the school division “will explore opportunities that promote equity and cultural competence, to include parent and community outreach and input” by the fall of 2019.

There are school employees on the advisory board, which can have up to 25 members, and School Board members Steven Ikenberry and Robert May attend meetings.

The advisory board has presented a list of three recommendations to the Hanover County School Board each year and some have been suggested year after year without being adopted, board member Melanie Bowers told 8News.

Two top recommendations the board has made for “at least” the last three to four years include having a third party conduct an equity audit and hiring a director of diversity, equity and inclusion, according to Bowers.

The school district has conducted its own audit on equity for the last two years, reviewing test scores, short-term suspensions and student and employee demographics.

“It was disappointing,” Bowers said about the latest report presented by the district. “It’s not substantive, there’s nowhere to go with the data and very little detail.”

The 2022 equity audit shows that Black students in Hanover schools are overrepresented in school discipline and underrepresented in advanced courses, such as AP and IB programs, in the county for the second straight year.

“Though declining, short term suspensions for black students are still disproportionate,” the 2022 report, which includes data from the 2019-2020 school year up to March 2022, states.

According to the division’s 2022 equity report, Black students made up 9.5% of Hanover schools’ student body in 2020-2021 but 17.6% of short-time suspensions — a suspension of up to 10 days. The rate fell slightly from the year before when Black students made up 9.4% of total enrollment and 18.7% of short-term suspensions.

Black students made up 6.5% of advanced placement (AP) program enrollment and 5.3% of total enrollment in international baccalaureate (IB) programs, but 14.5% of enrollment in a program that allows 11th and 12th graders to earn college credits, the audit shows.

Hanover County Public Schools is not unique, as studies show that Black students across the country are suspended or expelled at higher rates and are less likely to be assigned to gifted programs. A 2016 study found that Black students “are referred to gifted programs, particularly in reading, at significantly lower rates when taught by non-Black teachers.”

8News reached out to Hanover schools and Dr. Brian Maltby, the division’s discipline hearing review officer who presented the report to the school board in May, but were not granted an interview. Dr. Maltby did not answer multiple interview requests seeking additional information on the data on short-term suspensions.

In an email, Hanover schools spokesperson Chris Whitley wrote, in part:

“Our approach looks at how all of these pieces work together to create safe and effective learning environments and support individual students in developing their skills in meeting behavioral objectives. Please also note that last year we hired additional counselors and nine behavioral coaches to work directly with our teachers to learn strategies to improve behavior and reduce referrals and the amount of time students miss class because of discipline.

“These counselors and coaches also work with students, and we’ve seen a decrease in the number of calls for immediate assistance with a student. While we know that there is no quick fix, we have seen an impact in the investments that have already been made – with more to come in the budget recently adopted by our School Board

The equity audit aims to shed light on five areas within the district: equitable opportunities, discipline outcomes, human resources, resource allocation and student achievement.

The focus on discipline outcomes is meant to connect to the school division’s long-range plan to “provide a safe, inclusive, learning environment that engages all students.”

The audit provides figures and percentages on students’ economic status, disabilities, enrollment, total suicide assessments, surveys on how students and faculty are coping with trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic and more.

While Bowers commended the decision to conduct an audit and other steps Hanover schools have made in her two years on the advisory board, she said the report’s scant details leave her with more questions than answers.

“There is a report, but there’s no specific goals or what the district proposes to do with the data,” Bowers said. “They never have answers for that. There’s no conversations for improvement with this audit.”

Bowers believes having a third party conduct an equity audit report will give an unbiased fresh look at the data and help the district look further into the root causes of these disproportionate outcomes.

“If you had more insight and data in the audit you could dive a little deeper, gauge the different types of behavior that led to the suspensions. You can’t with the audit so it kind of leaves you feeling empty.”

Hanover’s School Board cited budgeting issues for not adopting their main recommendations, Bowers said, even though the equity community advisory board presented a proposal with a budget that would fit within the school division’s spending plan.

Hanover School Board Chair Ola Hawkins declined an interview request and did not answer specific questions for this story, instead sharing a statement that did not address what Bowers told 8News about the recommendations from the advisory board.

“The School Board receives input each year from all of our advisory committees for our review and consideration,” Hawkins wrote in an email. “We do not hold a formal vote on the committees’ recommendations. Rather, we take them into consideration during our work throughout the year, such as in our budget and policy development as well as several topics that committees have recommended we explore further.”

Last year, Bowers said the advisory board again called for a third-party equity audit and a position solely focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, including prioritizing the hiring of behavioral health counselors.

Bowers acknowledged that “some moves” had been made in regards to hiring consultants but said there’s been “no movement” on the others in the three to four years they have been recommended.

“It’s not meant to be a ‘gotcha’ moment for the school board, we believe the information is vital to help self-assessment. You need to find where we can improve because if you’re not reviewing or criticizing yourself you’re just setting yourself up for failure,” Bowers told 8News. “You can’t get any better that way.”