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City schools adopt more tolerant discipline policy

The Buffalo school district is going to use more carrots and fewer sticks to get its rule breakers to change their ways.

On Tuesday night, the Board of Education unanimously approved a new code of conduct under which students will no longer be suspended for disciplinary problems like truancy, cheating, cutting class, running in the halls, in-school cell phone use, smoking and dress code violations.

In these and many other cases, punishment is taking a back seat to intervention strategies like seating changes, writing letters of apology, notifying parents, peer mentoring and conflict resolution.

“Our primary obligation is to provide intervention so conduct doesn't repeat itself rather than primarily to impose consequences,” said Will Keresztes, associate superintendent for student support.

This policy change is the final result of a years-long effort to get the district to stop kicking kids out of school for minor infractions.

Community outrage spiked three years ago when Jawaan Daniels was fatally shot one afternoon shortly after he was suspended from Lafayette High School for wandering the halls.

“Everyone agreed that for a very long time, the district was far too casual about student suspensions,” Keresztes said. “Our purpose now is to be far more progressive, far less casual, and to be prepared to offer the kinds of interventions so that they don't have these challenges in the first place.”

Beginning next school year, instead of a 30-page “Code of Conduct” that primarily outlines a long list of prohibited behavior and another long list of penalties, there will be a new 70-page “Standards for Community-wide Conduct and Intervention Supports” that devotes pages to prevention and intervention strategies to get children to change their behavior.

It is the first time in more than a decade that the district's code of conduct has been substantially rewritten, officials said. A briefer version of the new policy will be distributed to parents, Keresztes said.

The code was approved near the start of the board's agenda, following a press conference on the steps of City Hall at which about two dozen members of the advocacy groups Citizen Action and Alliance for Quality Education praised the new code. Members of the same groups burst into applause when the board unanimously approved the new policy.

“Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” they cheered.

The district received help from Advancement Project, a racial justice civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C. that works with community groups in multiple states on education policy and other issues.

“I can confidently say with today's vote, Buffalo becomes a national model to end the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Jason Sinocruz, a staff attorney with Advancement Project.

Sinocruz pointed to two other districts that Advancement Project worked with where the change in the disciplinary code had a dramatic impact.

In Baltimore City, he said, similar changes to the district's discipline code led to a 44 percent decrease in out-of-school suspensions and an increase in graduation rates across the board from 2006-07 to 2009-2010.

In Denver, he said, changes in the code led to a 26 percent decrease in suspensions, a 49 percent decrease in expulsions, and increase in graduation rates from 2007-08 to 2011-12

The adoption of the new code of conduct marks the latest change over a three-year period to move the district from a purely punitive model to a more preventative model.

In 2009-10, the district responded to community pressure by putting in place “Student Support Teams” in every building – a psychologist, social worker and coordinator and guidance counselor. In subsequent years, the board instituted a model that parent conferences in lieu of suspensions for minor offenses.

Between the two changes, Keresztes said, short-term suspensions have steadily fallen, from 12,369 in March 2009-10 to 7,480 as of this March, a decline of nearly 40 percent.

Even so, there has been a disparity from school to school as to how the district's current code of conduct is applied.

“For example,” he said, “theoretically, for any act of misconduct, a short-term suspension could be issued.”

The new policy is much more specific.

Unlike the old Code of Conduct, the new policy includes nine pages of charts that clearly and specifically outline the types of intervention and consequences for each type of student offense. It also rules out certain consequences for certain offenses.

“It was really principals who said our code of conduct really needs to reflect the expectations you have of us inside the schools,” Keresztes said.

The interventions and consequences are categorized into one of four levels, with Level 1 being the mildest (written apology, verbal correction, seat change, parent conference, etc.) to Level 4, which includes long-term suspensions and expulsions.

Some offenses, like bus disruptions, lying to school staff, and threats against school personnel, can result in district responses that run the full range of levels, depending on the severity of the offense and the age of the offender.

Keresztes said the next step is to train principals, teachers and parents in the implementation of the new policy.