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Editorial: District's 'restorative' practices deserve a chance

Buffalo teachers may have a point regarding discipline in city schools, but Superintendent Kriner Cash has the better policy. Not all infractions call for harsh punishment and suspensions should be reserved for incidents in which no lesser punishment is suitable.

But the Buffalo Teachers Federation says students who act out, disrupting classes in one way or another, are being sent back to their classrooms with little or no punishment. It claims, without offering evidence, that the district is simply bowing to federal and state pressure to restrict the number of out-of-school suspensions.

That pressure may exist, but the school district has its own good reasons for limiting suspensions. There were too many of them in the recent past and they were directed too often at minority students. They are closely associated with dropout rates. They do nothing to correct bad behavior or get to the root of it.

Worst of all, out-of-school suspensions can put students at risk. One student, Jawaan Daniels, just 15, was killed in a drive-by shooting while he was on suspension in 2010. He received the punishment for wandering the halls of Lafayette High School. It’s true that most students won’t be shot to death while on suspension, but what will they do? Their parents are likely to be working. It opens the door to an array of hazards.

The school district has adopted a more thoughtful policy on suspensions, and for lesser offenses has turned to a “restorative” practice. That policy’s goal is to deal with misbehavior through mediation, community service and even peer counseling. It is time-consuming and requires training. That’s where the district needs to pay more attention, as Cash already knows.

The restorative approach is a more appropriate response than the union’s suggestion to spend more money by hiring additional school counselors, social workers and psychologists. Perhaps some increase in their numbers will make sense at some point, but first the district and union need to work together to ensure staffs are trained and, importantly, that school administrators communicate with their teachers about student discipline.

Union President Philip Rumore said, for example, that teachers are complaining that students sent to the principal’s office for “unacceptable behavior” are being returned to the classroom before there’s a discussion between the teacher and school administrator. Those discussions are obviously important, and they need to occur. Whether they happen before or after the student returns to the classroom may depend, in part, on the nature of the infraction.

But teachers who complain about decreased suspensions are missing the point. It is indisputable that the district relied on suspensions too heavily in the past. And even current figures show a dramatic racial tilt, with African-Americans accounting for 47 percent of the district’s enrollment, but 69 percent of suspensions. Whites, meanwhile, account for 20 percent of the student population, but only 10 percent of the suspensions.

Buffalo’s teachers are in difficult jobs, to be sure. Their challenges include some students who chronically disrupt classes, to the detriment of other students and the district’s responsibility to produce educated graduates. That’s the goal that all other policies need to serve.

But that doesn’t mean punishing students with an out-of-school suspension for walking the halls or for other minor offenses, even if they are mildly disruptive. There are other approaches that need to be put into place.

The new policy of “mindfulness” rooms holds promise. Its aim is to 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, and which are the sources of at least some of the misconduct that troubles classrooms.

That’s the better approach. It holds at least the possibility of changing behaviors. Suspensions don’t. They are a last resort.

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