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Proposal to hire counseling service under fire in Ken-Ton School District

A proposal in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District to reduce suspensions by contracting with a Rochester-based provider of mental health services has drawn the ire of the district’s counselors, social workers and psychologists.

The district is considering contracting with the Center for Youth to institute an “alternative to suspension program” at Hoover and Franklin middle schools at a cost of up to $50,000 per school through the end of the next academic year. Administrators say the number of suspensions in the district is too high, especially among black students in special-education classes.

But the district’s mental health professionals say they have been working to address the issue and were not consulted about bringing in a third party.

“Let it be known that there have been no formal invitations for mental health staff to participate in any discussions or meetings about suspension or about and with Center for Youth,” Larry Scott, a school psychologist, told the Ken-Ton School Board on Tuesday during its regular meeting. “We were only informed it was going to happen a few months ago.”

Scott said that he has been pushing for years for “a review and revision of district discipline policy and practices” but that no action was taken.

In May, Paul Clark from the center’s school-based services presented to the board an alternative to suspension framework and coaching model that he said changes the culture of buildings and engages students, parents and teachers.

Robin B. Zymroz, assistant superintendent for instruction and student services, said the center’s approach of “restorative justice” is the best model for the district. “Our mental health professionals, and our faculty and staff, have an opportunity to train under these professionals,” she said.

Scott said he suggested a restorative justice approach in past reports.

Eventually, the district’s staff would be trained to continue the model on their own, Zymroz said. “It’s the only way it’s sustainable,” she said. “There was never an intent by the district to bring in an outside agency to perpetuate the outside agency performing these interventions for our students. We have certified people who through specialized training over time will be able to take this over beautifully. So for us, we saw it as a win-win.”

The School Board was set to consider a contract Tuesday night, but agreed to withdraw it before a vote.

“Nobody’s looking at replacing anyone,” said School Board President Bob Dana. “We’re looking at hopefully working together to enhance the skills of the people that are here, then the other people can leave.”

Peter C. Stuhlmiller, president of the Kenmore Teachers Association, said a June 1 meeting between staff and administrators resulted in an agreement to incorporate staff input into the discussion on solving the district’s problem of a high rate of suspensions.

“Fortunately, once again, the district and the KTA and our mental health professionals are saying what is primary – what is so important – is having our folks collaborate and work together to decide how to use outside resources,” he said.

Dana and other board members have also expressed a desire to include Kenmore Middle School in the program, though that school is scheduled to close for the 2016-17 school year.