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Change sought in suspension policy; Group wants Buffalo to keep kids in school

A group of city residents is calling on the Buffalo Public Schools to end out-of-school suspensions as punishment for nonviolent crimes committed by district students.

The group leading the charge, Citizen Action of New York, held a Tuesday news conference at which it released a report that found 25 percent of students in Buffalo Public Schools were suspended in 2008 and 19 percent in 2009, nearly four times the statewide average. The district has 47,000 students.

"It does not help our children if the only thing we can offer them is punitive examples and methodologies," said Jim Anderson, a local board member of Citizen Action, which favors in-school suspension for things like talking back or tardiness.

The group maintains that if the district starts suspending students at an early age, it puts them on a pathway to dropping out, something their research shows.

"We are working with a challenging group of students; we are working in an inner-city community; and we have to address the issue in a way that does not discourage them from seeking an education," said Danielle Gonzalez, who has taught seventh and eighth grade at School 76 on Carolina Street.

The movement to end out-of-school suspensions has been gaining steam for several years. It started in 2008, when Jayvonna Kincannon was suspended from McKinley High School for seven weeks. Her crime? Using her cellphone in class to try to get on the agenda for the Board of Education meeting so she could speak in defense of a volunteer basketball coach who had been dismissed.

Then, in June 2010, Lafayette High School freshman Jawaan Daniels was suspended for wandering the halls during school hours. He left the building, and was fatally shot a short time later at a bus stop on West Delavan Avenue and Grant Street, barely five blocks from the high school.

Those gathered for Tuesday's news conference were cognizant of Jawaan's death, as they spoke outside the school from which he was suspended.

"If he was in school, there's a strong possibility he would still be alive today," said Leonard Lane, co-founder of FATHERS, one of the organizations joining Citizen Action in calling for a change to the suspension policy.

Will Keresztes, associate superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools, said two initiatives are already in place to help reduce out-of-school suspensions.

The first, a program called Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, seeks to place students who face "intense challenges" in a room with a social worker.

The second, implemented in 1,100 cases last year, allows for some students to avoid suspension if they meet in a conference with their parents and the principal.

Reducing the number of suspensions is one of the district's goals, Keresztes said, but much of the problem could be resolved if parents took part in their child's punishment.

"The best suspension-reduction program is when a parent sends a well-behaved child to school, and there is no substitute for parental responsibility for the behavior of children," Keresztes said.

But rather than focus on in-school suspensions -- a tool some principals already use -- Keresztes said he would like to work with Citizen Action and others to find ways to make sure students can stay in class.

"One of the things I really don't get too enthusiastic about is creating separate educational settings for children unless it's absolutely a last resort," Keresztes said. "Just because a child happens to be inside the physical building [with an in-school suspension] doesn't mean they can get the same learning experience as their peers."

email: kbargnes@buffnews.com

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