A New York Equity Coalition study of the state’s student suspensions identifies Rochester public schools as among the state’s most blameworthy and the most praiseworthy.
NYEC is an education advocacy group whose members include the Rochester Urban League, the Business Council of New York State, the Public Policy Institute of New York and more than a dozen other civil rights, business and public policy organizations.
The Rochester City School District suspends minority students at significantly higher rates than statewide averages, NYEC found. But the group’s paper also praised East High School for achieving a sharp reduction in suspensions. Only the once-failing East and several New York City schools are highlighted by the paper, which analyzes suspensions by all New York public schools.
Impact of restorative practices
Like the NYEC publication, RCSD official Ruth Turner attributes East’s success in cutting suspensions to the school’s application of restorative practices.
East is not the only RCSD school whose staff is trained in taking restorative measures or even the most successful, says Turner, the district’s chief of student support services and social emotional learning. Adopted by the district three years ago after 10 months of research and spade work, restorative practices training is currently fully implemented in more than half of RCSD schools and at least partly in place districtwide, she says.
NYEC based the policy paper, titled “Stolen Time,” on previously unpublished data gathered by the state Department of Education for the 2016-2017 school year.
Those data show racial minorities to be most often suspended and black students more often suspended than other minorities.
The paper states that its authors chose to focus on suspensions because of the availability of data to make their case. But they also see suspensions as more of a symptom than a cause of high-poverty urban and rural school districts’ ills.
Indeed, the paper’s granular breakdown of how suspensions affect minority and white students point to disparities that the authors trace in part to inherent racial bias among school disciplinarians.
The paper takes the position that despite evidence that shows kicking students out of school “pretty much sets them up for failure,” the state’s public schools are too quick to send misbehaving students home. What’s more, suspension is inequitably applied.
A 2013 University of California Los Angeles study the NYEC paper cites, for example, found that as little as a single suspension doubles a ninth grader’s likelihood of dropping out.
Similarly, the NYEC paper cites a 2014 advisory jointly penned by the U.S. departments of education and justice. It warned educators that exclusionary disciplinary measures such as out-of-school suspension lead to “an array of serious educational, economic, and social problems, including school avoidance and diminished educational engagement; decreased academic achievement; increased behavior problems; increased likelihood of dropping out; substance abuse; and involvement with juvenile justice systems.”
While the NYEC study decries suspensions by New York’s public schools as being at crisis levels with at least one student statewide receiving an out-of-school suspension every minute of every school day, the report singles out Rochester’s East High along with several New York City school districts for kudos, citing marked reductions in suspensions over the past several years.
Model for success?
Since 2014, East has been run as a partnership of the University of Rochester and the RCSD. The partnership, which put UR’s Warner School of Education at East’s helm, was begun as the school faced the prospect of a state-enforced receivership. It has since improved, raising its graduation rate as well as cutting its overall suspension rate from 19 percent to 4 percent.
Originally known as restorative justice, the restorative approach was adapted from criminal justice settings, where it began as a program for juvenile offenders.
Noting that there is no single set of measures that rigidly defines school restorative practices, the authors of a 2016 study of the practice, “Restorative Justice in U.S. Schools,” identify “offender mediation conferences, group conferences, and various circles among meetings of the parties that were involved in or impacted by the harmful actions” as elements typically employed by schools’ restorative programs.
Turner describes similar efforts as the heart of the RCSD’s restorative effort. She bridles at any references to that effort as a program. Rather, she says, ongoing training is meant to change how staffers who interact with students on a day-to-day basis look at and deal with student misbehavior.
For Turner, circles or conferences in which bullies face the bullied and teachers participate are not a programmatic ritual that follows rigid rules. They are meant to foster fundamental improvements in behaviors of students, administrators, teachers and other school staffers.
The NYEC paper describes the backbone of the East restorative initiative as lying in a cadre of counselors and social workers hired with extra state money specially allocated to East.
The policy paper credits the extra funding as “the driving force behind implementing restorative practices such as training for every staff member including custodians, clerical workers and security officers.”
Four of seven Rochester Board of Education members responded to my request for reaction to the NYEC report and specifically for comment on its highlighting of the East restorative justice program. Board president Van White did not respond.
Natalie Sheppard supports the restorative practices effort, but she says suspension must still be “a reasonable consequence depending on the situation.” To that she adds a caveat: “It is imperative for state and local officials to ensure that when a student is removed from their traditional classroom setting, they receive a high-quality alternative for instruction and additional behavioral support services.”
At the same time, Sheppard says, restorative practices “can serve as proactive measures to promote positive school behaviors, or as an opportunity for students and staff to grow socially and emotionally which directly impacts the learning that takes place within schools,” adding that East’s praise is deserved.
Board vice president Willa Powell says that“the board of education wholeheartedly supports restorative practices as part of its Code of Conduct policy, and has embraced a phase-in approach to providing restorative practice training to all the schools in our district.”
Rochester Teachers Association president Adam Urbanski also backs restorative measures. But like Sheppard, he says that sending home some disruptive students is appropriate in some cases as long as any so furloughed students get adequate home tutoring.
Restorative practices are not in themselves enough, however, Urbanski believes. In his view, the not-so-secret ingredient that won East plaudits is money. Schools that do not have funds to add staff like the counselors and psychologists cannot match East’s successes, he contends.
As Urbanski sees it, a restorative approach that sees all infractions as solvable by “hand-holding in a circle” cannot effectively deal with the most problematic cases. Restorative efforts have not been as successful at every RCSD school that has put them place as they have at East, he insists. Sometimes different interventions are needed.
In dealing with disruptive students, “the process always needs to begin with an assessment, a professional diagnosis,” followed by referrals to appropriate outside social service agencies, Urbanski asserts.
For example, he says, in cases where students have committed violent assaults, brought weapons to schools or are guilty of other serious felonies, school officials should turn the students over to police.
“Students who have committed serious crimes should be dealt with as criminals,” the union president holds.
“I’m not even going to respond to that,” RCSD’s Turner says.
There may be cases where police involvement might be appropriate, she concedes, but that is not especially relevant to the district’s restorative practices rollout.
The restorative practices push as a whole is achieving results, she says. While it is true that some RCSD schools’ results have not matched East’s, others are doing better.
The picture the NYSEC paper paints of the Rochester district’s recent record on the suspension front is mixed.
The district had fewer suspensions than two of the Big Four urban school systems—Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse and Yonkers. But state data show that the Big Four as group suspend students at 6.7 times the rate that New York’s most prosperous districts do.
Across the state, high rates of suspensions of black students amount to “a crisis in the
use of suspensions (particularly) to exclude black students from classroom instruction,” the NYEC study states. Citing a 2002 Indiana University study, the policy paper asserts that teachers’ and administrators’ inherent bias is largely responsible for an across-the-board disparity in the rates at which white students and minority students are suspended.
“The majority of reasons for which white students are referred more frequently seem to be based on an objective event (e.g., smoking, vandalism) that leaves a permanent product. Reasons for black referrals to the office, on the other hand, are infractions (e.g., loitering, excessive noise) that would seem to require a good deal more subjective judgment on the part of the referring agent. Even the most serious of the reasons for office referrals among black students, threat, is dependent on perception of threat by the staff making the referral,” the 2002 study concluded.
General findings of the NYEC report include:
- New York’s Big Four urban school districts suspend minority students at markedly higher rates than the state’s other districts including New York City’s as well as other high-poverty urban and rural districts and more prosperous urban and rural districts;
- Schools in prosperous as well as less-prosperous and highest-need districts suspend significantly more black students than white pupils and outpace suspensions of other racial minority and mixed-race students; and
- Black male high school students account for a disproportionate number of suspensions across the spectrum.
While Rochester, with an overall 7.6 percent suspension rate, had fewer suspensions than Buffalo (13.8 percent) and Syracuse (11.9 percent), its rate was nearly three points higher than Yonkers’ (4.8 percent). Rochester and Yonkers suspended black students at virtually the same rate, 9.8 percent for Rochester and 9.9 percent for Yonkers.
Whether Urbanski’s contention that more money is needed to adequately address the RCSD’s school climate woes or Turner’s view that money is not a sine qua non is closer to the truth, it is far from clear that any windfall will be forthcoming.
Now at the start of its 2019-20 budget making process, the Rochester School Board was recently warned by Deputy Superintendent Beth Mascitti-Miller that to make troublingly scarce dollars stretch, the district might have to consider measures such as increasing class sizes.
That warning comes as the board undertakes a search for a superintendent to replace outgoing chief Barbara Deane-Williams, whose employment ended Dec. 31. It also comes as the sometimes fractious board is beginning to work with Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino in what could be a years-long process to fix what Aquino depicted in a recent report as a district in crisis.
Aquino, a consultant appointed by the state to guide the school board and district through a state-mandated improvement project, largely set the project’s terms in a November report in which he laid out a detailed series of steps. His charge came as result of state Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia’s dissatisfaction the RCSD’s efforts to show improvement in graduation rates and test scores. If Aquino does not see sufficient improvement, Elia could order a state takeover or hand control of the city schools to Mayor Lovely Warren.