Where is the help for children who need it?


A prominent African-American city official was asked a couple of years ago about the most pressing challenge facing Rochester's schools. His response: the most pressing challenge is working with children who need social-emotional help while maintaining high standards for the rest of the students. 

It’s a difficult and sensitive subject that comes up often. How do teachers and school officials find this kind of support for children without criminalizing them? And why should parents, particularly African-American parents, have confidence in a mental health system that has often treated them with disrespect?

The subject came up again in a roundabout way at a recent school board meeting. Board members were briefed on the status of the recommendations for a new Code of Conduct policy. The recommendations rely heavily on restorative justice practices and less on punitive measures. If handled correctly, the shift should mean fewer student disruptions, less violence, and a significant drop in suspensions – which have historically been high in city schools, hitting African American and Latino students the hardest.

Even though a final Code of Conduct policy has not yet been approved by the board, some schools are already using restorative justice practices. And the suspension rate is decreasing. Deputy Superintendent Christiana Otuwa told board members that the district has had 762 short-term suspensions so far this school year, which is down from 1,752 from this time last year, and 43 long-term suspensions — down from 762 from this time last year. 

But it’s not time to celebrate. Otuwa also stressed that restorative justice practices alone probably will not resolve all student-behavior issues. While some board members questioned whether teachers are adequately trained to work in urban school environments, Otuwa countered that the solution doesn’t stop with teacher skill sets, either.

Many students need social-emotional support, as well, she said. And she said that the district needs more alternative programs that address students’ interests and needs.

There’s an argument to make for increasing the number of social workers, counselors, and psychologists in most public schools today.

But it’s especially urgent for districts like the Rochester City School District where more and more parents are choosing alternatives to city schools, such as charter, private, and suburban options.

It’s not fair to stop parents from making those choices, but what are they leaving behind?