In the cascade of troubling news surrounding the Buffalo Public Schools of late, this is a bright spot: The district is working on a long-term solution to what, by any measure, is a too-high rate of suspensions, especially among black and Latino students.
More than 1,000 students receive an out-of-school suspension every month in the Buffalo Public Schools, and a high proportion of them are black males. Nearly one in five students receives an out-of-school suspension each year, compared to the statewide average of one in 20.
It’s a problem recognized by the administration and education activists. The district has been undergoing a profound shift with regard to student discipline, a process begun in 2009. It started by updating district disciplinary policies to require principals to consider using a parental conference in lieu of suspension. District officials said that move reduced suspensions by about 20 percent. It is, therefore, important that long-range planning on reforms around suspension also consider suggestions offered by educational advocacy groups.
The Just and Fair Schools Campaign has a list of steps it would like to see taken by the School Board to reduce the number of school suspensions further, an action that should help increase the district’s dismal 50 percent graduation rate.
The campaign has been launched by Citizen Action and the Alliance for Quality Education, which acknowledge the long-term work being done by the district. But time is of the essence as more and more students are suspended and sent home, some for minor infractions such as wearing inappropriate attire to school, talking back to the teacher or wandering the halls. Discouraging this type of behavior is important, but so is an understanding of the root cause of the behavior and applying the appropriate level of discipline.
The district has been working on revising the student Code of Conduct, a process that has involved wide community input, including Citizen Action and AQE. The revised code will have a lot of the same material, because most of the document is controlled by state education law. But how the code is implemented will be key. A progressive and intervention-rich school environment that draws on restorative justice exercises for students and peer mediation has a good chance of keeping students in school and learning.
The Just and Fair Schools Campaign urges, for example, that the regulation that says “the option of a parental conference in lieu of suspension must be considered by the principal” should instead read that a parent conference in lieu of suspension must be offered in grades one through six.
The groups also would like to see an end to out-of-school suspension for prekindergarten and kindergarten students. The district position is that such suspensions are imposed on a case-by-case basis. But the campaign suggests that the infraction would be better addressed by using a tiered approach that would dictate specific action, such as talking to the student to find out the source of the problem, rather than simply sending the child home.
There has been a lot of dialogue on the issue, and district officials understand that they must take much more robust action.
The new Code of Conduct is expected to set specific standards for students and guide how discipline is to be imposed. In the end, no one should be able to say the school doesn’t know what to do with a child.