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Buffalo school discipline code gets national spotlight at White House

WASHINGTON – Buffalo’s public schools don’t exactly win a lot of nationwide respect and recognition, but that’s exactly what happened here Wednesday.

Buffalo was one of 40 districts nationwide invited to take part in a White House conference called “Rethink Discipline.” The district did just that, reforming its student Code of Conduct in 2013, and so Will Keresztes, associate superintendent of student support services, traveled here to explain to his colleagues nationwide how the district did it.

“I think you’ll find we have one of the most progressive codes of conduct in the country,” Keresztes told his fellow educators. “I get two or three phone calls a month from other districts asking, basically, if they are allowed to steal it.”

That new, more lenient code of conduct makes it harder for teachers to suspend students for minor offenses, and it resulted in a 22 percent drop in suspensions between the 2012-13 and the 2013-14 school years.

That’s important, Keresztes said in an interview, because keeping students in the classroom quite obviously improves their chances of receiving a decent education.

Of course, with low test scores and a fractious School Board and a revolving door in the position of superintendent, there are many questions about the Buffalo district’s ability to provide a decent education.

In fact, just last week, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia told Buffalo School Board members: “Rest assured that if the schools do not show demonstrable improvement, someone will come in under my authority and fix those schools.”

And even the district’s new code of conduct was born of a tragic mistake.

On June 10, 2010, Lafayette High School freshman Jawaan Daniels was suspended for roaming the hallways without permission. Later that day, he was shot to death at a bus stop near the school.

“It was a wake-up call for us,” Keresztes said. “It really got us to contemplate whether we were too casual with suspensions. And the answer was yes.”

In response, the district worked with parents, students, teachers, principals and others in the community to develop the new code of conduct, Keresztes told the educators.

“It was the result of a lot of collaboration,” he said, noting that the School Board passed the change unanimously.

Under the new policy, students are no longer routinely suspended for offenses such as truancy, cheating, smoking, using cellphones and running in the halls.

Instead, district officials take an interventionist approach, asking students to write letters of apology or perhaps accept mentoring and conflict resolution as potential solutions.

Federal officials are impressed with the change.

“The Buffalo School District has made progress in transforming policies and school climate to support student learning,” said Raymonde Charles, deputy press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education. “The district has partnered with the community to improve school climate – and has increased transparency by regularly sharing comprehensive discipline data with the community – with the goal of reducing disruptions in instructional time and boosting student achievement.”

That’s just the sort of thing the Department of Education wants local school districts to be doing.

“Creating and sustaining safe, supportive schools is absolutely essential to ensuring students can engage in the rich learning experiences they need for success in college, work and life – that’s why rethinking school discipline is critical to boosting student achievement and improving school outcomes,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

“Today’s conference shows that there are leaders across the country who are committed to doing this work.”