Human toll of school suspensions is devastating


Should a student be suspended for tugging on a teacher? What’s the likelihood of a student returning to school after a multiple-day out-of-school suspension? Are special-needs students able to make up instruction time lost to suspensions? And how long should it take for school officials to notify parents that their child has been arrested and is sitting in the Monroe County jail?

These are a few of the questions raised by parents and students yesterday at a press conference organized by Metro Justice and several community partners concerning the high suspension rates in the Rochester school district.

Much of the presentation was about a report compiled by Metro Justice’s education committee. The report showed that 88 percent of the 6,373 suspensions in city schools during the 2012-2013 school year were for minor infractions.

But the human toll revealed by the data is devastating. Suspended students and their families are often thrust into a dizzying array of situations that frequently seem inconsistent and disproportionate to the offense — with some ultimately leading to youth arrests.

In some respects, the suspension data is neither new nor shocking. Superintendent Bolgen Vargas said yesterday that he's familiar with efforts to improve school climate going back to 1977.

“This is not a new problem, and it’s getting worse,” he said. 

But reforming school climate and breaking what is often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline isn’t going to be easy. What may be different about this latest effort is that the escalating call for change is coming from outside the Rochester school district.

Activist Rosemary Rivera made a point of saying that although the district has been cooperative in providing the data on suspensions, the report is not the district’s; it is the result of an all-volunteer effort by several community agencies. And the report is only a starting point, she said. It’s up to the community to keep the reform moving forward, she said.

School board President Van White says that he will move to amend the district's code of conduct at tomorrow night’s (Thursday) school board meeting. White said that he will propose eliminating a section of the code that appears to be ambiguous and may lead to unwarranted suspensions.

But reform will also require developing and coordinating the alternative services and resources that the report strongly indicates that some city students need, but don’t receive. And it’s going to require teachers and administrators to create a different kind of school experience, giving special attention to students transitioning into ninth grade.

Unlike many suburban K-12 schools where students and families transition fairly seamlessly from eighth to ninth grade, school choice prevails in city high schools. And students are often placed in unfamiliar environments away from their neighborhoods where they have no connections to teachers and principals.

Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers Association, says that suspensions are a management issue. Contrary to what many people believe, he says, teachers don’t suspend students. It’s the job of administrators to make that decision, he says.

But teachers are struggling with their own problem related to school discipline: How do they direct students to the help they need, while not allowing disruptions and problems to interfere with the instruction of the majority of students who are attentive and learning?

Urbanski says that every elementary school needs a full-time social worker or counselor, and that there should be a case manager in every school to help students.

“This community doesn’t have a shortage of resources, but we lack the connection to those resources and services for the students who need them,” he says.

The report also reinforces what many people believe is obvious: the adverse influence of poverty on students and families. The issue is not whether poor children can learn. From a social justice standpoint, it’s a matter of leveling the playing field so that some students don’t start with so many disadvantages.

“Poverty has gotten worse and it’s become a little mean-spirited,” said Ralph Spezio, principal of School 17, where yesterday’s event was held. “I’ve never seen so many kids under so much stress. They're traumatized.”

Using punishment to reduce “pain-based behaviors” doesn’t work, Spezio said. It only causes more pain and suffering, he said.