About 20 people attended the public hearing Tuesday at McKinley High School about proposed changes to the Buffalo Public Schools’ code of conduct, which establishes how the schools respond to student misbehavior.
Many of those who attended seemed to agree with district administrators that the revisions are on the right track by taking a more compassionate tone, trying to address underlying reasons why students misbehave, rather than just punishing the behavior.
The revisions fall in line with what many community activists have been calling for: fewer suspensions for nonviolent offenses.
But there remains work to be done before the code of conduct is finalized this spring, many said Tuesday night.
Those in the audience said the schools need to embrace a mentoring program; stop suspending children in kindergarten through third grade; establish an in-school suspension program; and provide diversity and cultural sensitivity training to teachers and administrators.
One youngster, an eighth-grader at Native American Magnet School 19, suggested that when students are caught wandering the halls or committing other minor offenses, principals consider consequences other than suspension.
“I was thinking that for that kind of behavior, they could do community service, helping the janitor in the school or helping teachers,” Jeffrey Dillashaw said.
The revised code includes that type of approach – restorative justice – as one of the options principals will have, Associate Superintendent Will Keresztes told him.
“When one person has been harmed in some way, the other person gets a chance to heal what happened, so everyone can move forward,” he said.
Keresztes frequently agreed with those in the audience, but sometimes offered fewer concrete answers than people wanted.
“I’m concerned about African-American males. What kind of training is going to take place in terms of sensitizing teachers to students? All students are not alike socially and economically,” said James Payne, a member of Citizen Action of New York, as well as 100 Black Men of Buffalo.
Keresztes, the district’s representative at the meeting, agreed that the district “for decades has not really wrestled that demon to the ground.” He said that principals, assistant principals and school support teams would be trained this summer on the revisions to the code of conduct – but he did not offer any specifics regarding diversity or cultural sensitivity training.
Ellen Kennedy said she didn’t notice any references to in-school suspension in the revisions.
“Since that’s certainly an alternative to sending a kid home – having teachers there trying to educate them as well as control their behavior – I just wonder if that’s part of your thinking at all,” she said.
Principals currently have the option of establishing an in-school suspension program, Keresztes said. But he said that the district lacks the resources to staff in-school suspension rooms in every school.
“In order for it to be valid, it has to be a place where children are receiving instruction, with a certified teacher and probably an aide. It can’t just be a place where children are warehoused,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’re not in a place where we can guarantee being able to provide those resources to all the schools.”
Sheldon Anderson, a senior at Buffalo State College, wanted to know why the district doesn’t do more to embrace mentoring programs. He left the meeting disappointed, wishing Keresztes and other officials had engaged in more of a dialogue with him about his concerns.
“I wanted to get their actual, honest opinion,” he said. “It seems like there’s resistance to having a college student come in and give tips about getting into college, for instance. I don’t see what can be hard about setting up a program like that. It doesn’t cost any money.”
Additional public hearings on the code of conduct are scheduled for 6 p.m. Jan. 17 at Performing Arts, 450 Masten Ave., and 6 p.m. Jan. 22 at Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library, 1324 Jefferson Ave.