Rochester schools Superintendent Bolgen Vargas is seeking a new community-wide effort to improve school safety and student behavior. Vargas says he wants to increase efforts to prevent fights like the one that recently broke out on the Frederick Douglass campus. In that incident, police used pepper spray to quell the melee between students at Northeast and Northwest College Preparatory High Schools.
Vargas says he also want to sharply decrease the need for harsh disciplinary actions like suspensions. But finding an effective way to prevent these problems has been a serious challenge for years, Vargas says. And he wants to try a new approach.
In an interview last week, Vargas said he envisions a program modeled after the one that district officials launched two years ago to address truancy and attendance problems. That program is a collaborative effort between the city, county, and school district.
School officials are ultimately responsible for the safety of students while they are in school, but this is a communitywide problem and the solution will require a collective response, Vargas said.
"I'll need the help of all four unions," Vargas said. "And I'm going to need the help of parents and students."
Vargas said he is talking with Jennifer Leonard, president and CEO of the Rochester Area Community Foundation, and that he'll soon be reaching out to Mayor Lovely Warren and other community leaders to help develop the program. He also wants every school to have a full-time social worker.
The US Department of Education and the US Department of Justice recently issued new guidelines to help school administrators develop school disciplinary policies. The guidelines were developed to steer school officials away from the zero-tolerance tactics that emerged in the 1990's, which have been overly punitive to minority students and those with learning disabilities. The federal guidelines stress prevention.
School violence and suspensions are symptoms of bigger problems, Vargas said. Students are more likely to get into trouble when they are falling behind academically and don't have extracurricular activities that keep them engaged in school, such as art, drama, sports, and music.
"When students are engaged, they're less likely to misbehave," he said. "That is the best form of prevention."
Josh Lofton High School, the I Am Ready program, and more recently, the LyncX Academy were designed to help students with behavioral problems. Often they've been suspended and can't attend their home school. But these efforts haven't been effective, Vargas said, because they lacked the extra-curricular activities component that engages students.
And programs like Pathways to Peace, which was created to help students resolve their conflicts without resorting to violence, won't be effective either, if that's the district's only response, he said.
The district's preliminary data indicates that there have been about 7,200 suspensions from city schools so far this school year. About 5,500 were in-school suspensions, says district spokesperson Chip Partner, but more detailed information about the suspensions isn't available.
Collecting accurate data concerning suspensions has been a challenge for school officials, as it has been for attendance. Last year, some school board members questioned the administration's claim that there were 5,500 suspensions for the 2012-2013 school year, believing that the figure was higher.