Rochester school board members got some good news last night about suspensions. According to a recent report, short- and long-term suspensions have dropped significantly, from 11,000 in the 2007 to 2008 school year to 5,500 in 2012-2013. The problem is that board members don't believe the data.
District officials concede that the way disciplinary problems are reported varies from school to school. And they said that even data from as recently as two years ago isn't thorough.
Board members are trying to determine if the approach teachers and administrators are using to discipline is effective, or if it just removes students from classrooms and reduces instruction time. Board members Cynthia Elliott, Van White, and Mary Adams say that they are also concerned that the disciplinary actions are more severe for African American and Latino students than they are for other students.
Elliott questioned whether teachers, who are largely white and female, fully understand and have been trained on how to respond to some behaviors that may seem inappropriate, but are culturally relevant. Many city students respond with aggression or defensiveness, she said, because they need to protect themselves in the neighborhoods where they live.
And she questioned, as many school security leaders across the country have, whether policies rooted in zero-tolerance ideology are actually contributing to problem behavior.
White said that parents need to be better informed about their legal rights when it comes to school discipline. Parents have the right to appeal a suspension, but most don’t because they don’t know they can.
And board member Adams said that she had requested more information from the Rochester Police Department about its contact with city students. For example, how many times were students restrained, pepper sprayed, or detained in the back seat of a cop car, or arrested? she asked.
What school officials do know is that Monroe, Wilson Commencement Academy, East, School of the Arts, Charlotte, and 17 had the most suspensions last year. Monroe had the most with nearly 700 suspensions.
Most suspensions are short-term, in-school suspensions for incidents involving minor altercations, disruptive behavior, and assaults that caused physical injury. Bringing weapons to school, possessing and selling drugs were other leading causes for suspensions.
Suspensions occurred in nearly every grade last year, but the majority was clustered in grades 7 through 9.
While Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has renewed emphasis on data collection, school officials says that it’s not as easy as it might seem. A fight, for example, could be reported a few different ways.
And there is concern about under-reporting all instances because school officials are fearful of having so many suspensions that the district becomes known for student violence and disruptive behaviors
The board will meet again sometime in November to continue its review of the policy.