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Suspensions are down in Buffalo, but the reason why troubles some

A student is sent to the principal’s office for bad behavior – maybe mouthing off to the teacher, cursing or disrupting class.

But what’s troubling some Buffalo teachers is that those kids are getting sent back to the classroom with little or no consequences.

That’s according to the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which has raised the matter with district officials after complaints this year from teachers faced with that very dilemma and who ask: How are they supposed to teach under those circumstances?

The issue is percolating at a time when the Buffalo Public Schools – along with many school districts around the United States – is emphasizing so-called "restorative" practices, like dialogue and mediation, as opposed to the traditional punitive model of school discipline.

Yes, students are still being suspended. But district officials believe too many kids – particularly minorities – were being suspended and missing out on classroom instruction for minor misbehavior that could be handled much differently.

“We’re trying to help solve the problem at the root cause,” Superintendent Kriner Cash said.

But the union says the approach stems from revamped federal and state education policies that will hold schools more accountable for their numbers of out-of-school suspensions.

“What’s happening is the state and the district are saying they want to have fewer suspensions and, unfortunately, what is happening in some of the schools, is principals aren’t suspending students who should be suspended to keep their numbers low,” said Philip Rumore, BTF president.

Instead, Rumore said, it’s only fueling more bad classroom conduct.

“It’s because they are not dealing appropriately with the disruptive behavior,” Rumore said. “When you send a student back to class, the message goes out to the rest of the class that that behavior is OK.”

The superintendent doesn’t see it this way.

“What the state is saying is, ‘Certain indicators are too high, therefore, what strategies are you going to undertake?'” Cash said. “I would never just put out an order, ‘You got to stop suspending.’”

“And I would counter with lots of data to show that we have a significant challenge with disproportionality here,” Cash said, referring to the high number of students of color being suspended. “We have a school system over-identifying children based on walking, talking behaviors.”

The school district has been down this road before.

Who gets suspended

The 2010 death of Jawaan Daniels, killed in a drive-by shooting while suspended for roaming his high school hallways, sparked community outcry and forced the district to adopt a new code of conduct that banned out-of-school suspensions for minor infractions. The school district received national recognition for its efforts and by the spring of 2013, short-term suspensions had dropped by nearly 40 percent.

Since then, short-term suspensions had started creeping back up, district data show, while long-term suspensions of six or more days generally have been on the decline.

A snapshot of suspensions from the 2016-17 school year shows:

• Suspensions were down 12 percent, overall, from the prior year. Long-term suspensions fell from 1,938 to 1,799, while short-term suspensions decreased from 9,257 to 8,122.

• More than half of Buffalo schools saw a decline in suspensions. Bennett High School, BUILD Academy, Riverside and Roosevelt saw the largest percentage decreases.

• Twenty-seven schools reported more suspensions. East Community High School had the most suspensions per 100 students. International School 45 saw the biggest percentage increase from one year to the next.

• African-Americans accounted for most of the suspensions. While black students make up 47 percent of the district’s enrollment, they accounted for 69 percent of all suspensions. Whites, meanwhile, account for 20 percent of the student population, but only 10 percent of the suspensions.

• Freshmen were suspended the most.  No grade levels were spared, including kindergarten and pre-kindergarten, where 254 students were suspended. Suspensions escalated with each grade level, peaking in ninth grade.  As a group, middle schoolers - those in grades 5 to 8 – tallied more suspensions than students in either elementary or high school.

• Boys accounted for nearly two-thirds of the district’s suspensions. BUILD;  Performing Arts; Math, Science & Technology Preparatory School and Emerson were the exceptions where more girls than boys were suspended.

Creating 'restorative' culture

Restorative practice is a broad term used to describe non-punitive ways of dealing with school behavior - mediation, community service, maybe peer counseling. It isn’t new, but more school districts have moved in that direction over the past 10 years with more research, said Anthony Petrosino, director of the Justice and Prevention Research Center for WestEd, an educational non-profit in Boston, Mass.

Studies suggest, Petrosino said, that there’s a strong correlation between suspensions and students dropping out of school.

Zero-tolerance policies are pushing kids out with no evidence it’s making schools safer, he said, while more school misbehavior is being handed over to law enforcement, contributing to a “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Studies also show racial disparities in both the number and severity of suspensions, he said.

“One theory is implicit bias,” Petrosino said. “Maybe to the kid of color we’re saying, ‘He has defiant, disrespectful behavior,’ For the white kid, we’re saying, ‘He’s the class clown.’ We see it in other areas of life.”

There’s still not a wide breadth of research on the topic, Petrosino said, but early indications are promising as long as there is buy-in, training and sustained support for restorative practices, which could take as much as five years to become the culture in a school.

“We don’t want kids to tell teachers to ‘Go shove it,’ but it’s very different than, say, catching a kid fighting,” Petrosino said. “That’s where you have a lot of discretion and where your own bias comes in. Should we suspend kids for that? Should we be taking away from them instructional time?”

“Maybe,” he said, “there’s a different way of handling it.”

There is reluctance, Petrosino said, because restorative practices are time-consuming for teachers, particularly if they’re not properly trained on how to manage their classrooms.

“There’s a lot of push-back and I think that is one of the challenges,” he said. “There’s going to be a core group of teachers and administrators who feel we’re weakening or softening our response to student misbehavior.”

Revolving door disicipline?

Teachers from several Buffalo schools have complained this year that students sent to the office for “unacceptable behavior” are being returned to the classroom before there’s a discussion between the teacher and school administrator, Rumore said.

In one case, he said, a principal told teachers not to report fights unless there is blood or an injury. In another, Rumore said, teachers were told not to use the term “assault” when reporting an incident.

Some documented incidents have been altered or removed from records by school administrators, the union president said.

The union sent out a survey to teachers to get a better handle on the issue.

In the meantime, union delegates from each of the schools recently passed a resolution raising their concerns with the district and asking administrators to cease what appears to them to be a policy of “no or reduced suspensions.”

The union also asked that any restorative practices be done at a limited number of schools and accompanied by a comprehensive review before these practices are expanded district wide.

“It’s not being done with fidelity,” Rumore said. “The principals aren’t setting up the conferences that are supposed to occur, the teachers don’t have the time to do it, and what’s particularly troubling is it hasn’t been field-tested yet to see if it works.”

Both sides agree on one thing: Schools need to be do a better job of assessing the root cause of the problems.

The union calls for a substantial increase in the number of school counselors, social workers and psychologists.

The district, meanwhile, is training its teachers on alternatives for handling behavioral problems.

One example: George E. Blackman School of Excellence on Main Street recently unveiled its “mindfulness” room, a strategy schools are rolling out to help address behavioral problems, resolve conflicts, reduce suspensions and teach kids how to cope with the stress and emotional trauma that so many bring with them to the classroom. Students go to the room – which has warm lighting, squishy toys and a white-noise machine – to relieve stress and talk out problems.

Cash acknowledged the district hasn’t been able to train all staff at once, which might be a cause of some of the problems at certain schools. The district also has a lot of young teachers still learning how to manage their classrooms, the superintendent said.

But, Cash said, more professional staff isn’t necessarily the answer to the issue - or even feasible – despite the union's request. The district, he said, already has 56 psychologists, 71 social workers and 88 school counselors.

“I have enough staff,” the superintendent said. “Could we use more of everything? Of course, but everybody has budget challenges. We’re not going to have a 1-to-1 ratio.”

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