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Editorial: Innovative approaches needed to curb bias in school suspensions

A report this week pointed out two distressing facts about school discipline: Students of color are given out-of-school suspensions at a significantly higher rate than white students, and Buffalo’s suspension rate is higher than at any of the other large urban districts in the state.

The findings were in a report issued Monday by the New York Equity Coalition, a statewide alliance that is concerned about what’s called the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The worry is that detentions, suspensions and expulsions of students of color increase the likelihood that they will eventually engage with the criminal justice system.

The racial disparities are a product of many things, including cultural differences that often exist between teachers and students of different races. Some of those gaps will start to narrow as teaching staffs become more diverse. Research shows that employing more teachers of color help minimize the chances that black and Latino students are subject to discipline that takes them out of school.

The Education Trust, a nonprofit that is part of the Equity Coalition, found in state data from 2016-17 that Buffalo had the highest overall suspension rate when compared to Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers. Nearly 14 percent of students in Buffalo received at least one suspension.

The Buffalo School District points out that the report’s data is from two years ago. “So far this year, suspensions are trending downward,” a statement from the district says.

Why is there a disparity between Buffalo and other districts? A primary reason is because other districts have made a concerted effort to find alternatives to suspending kids, including what’s called “restorative practices.” Buffalo Superintendent Kriner Cash has tried to implement restorative practices here, but has run into a wall of opposition from the Buffalo Teachers Federation. Until the union takes a more open-minded stance, progress on suspensions will be slower than it needs to be.

Suspensions are warranted for serious offenses, such as physical assault. For lesser misconduct, many educators think suspensions are counterproductive. They not only are inequitable, but studies have shown they do not deter bad behavior.

The idea behind restorative practices is that punishment is replaced by mediation, community service, peer counseling and other practices designed to build empathy and a sense of responsibility in students.

Buffalo’s Cash has called restorative training “very, very powerful.”

The teachers union doesn’t see it that way. Philip Rumore, BTF president, says the restorative practices approach means student troublemakers escape with no consequences. And, he says, teachers don’t have time to undertake the training.

Rather than train the teachers, Rumore calls for a significant increase in the number of school counselors, social workers and psychologists.

The Equity Coalition report highlighted Rochester’s East High School, where in 2013-14 the suspension rate for black and Latino students was 23 percent and 19 percent, respectively. After the University of Rochester took over management of the school, East’s suspension rate for black and Latino students dropped to 5 percent and 4 percent.

East hired addition social workers, using grant money, who took part in restorative practices training. But there was a top-to-bottom priority placed on reducing excessive suspensions. Teachers, custodians and clerical workers all took part in the training.

Controlling a classroom in some of the city’s poorest schools is a tough task, one that many brave teachers take on every day. But, using suspensions as a one-size-fits-all punishment is shortchanging the students.

The Buffalo district won’t be able to move the needle on school suspensions until the teachers’ union becomes a willing partner rather than a source of obstruction.

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