A chance to succeed: solutions not suspensions in Rochester

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The Rochester community deserves schools where it is a joy to teach and to learn—an environment that is safe and nurtures supportive and respectful relationships among the entire school community. Our children, and sometimes our adults, are still learning how to self-regulate and grow in their understanding of how to conduct themselves in the world. Unfortunately, the most commonly used tool to attempt to teach our children how to behave is the harmful practice of suspensions. Our Rochester community has made many strides to change that, but there is still work to be done.

Rosemary Rivera

Suspensions might sound normal to many, but suspending students from school is an outdated and punitive form of discipline that causes a lot of harm and should be used only as a last resort. Removing students from the school environment makes them more likely to fall behind academically, which for many is the first step in a chain reaction of withdrawal. After a student is suspended, chances increase that they will be held back a grade, drop out of high school, or become incarcerated as an adult.

Unfortunately, post-pandemic, we were bombarded with rising rates of violence, which seeped onto the very steps of our schools. That fear of violence has led to increased cries for police in schools and more punitive measures like suspensions. However, the horrific murder of Tyre Nichols reminds us that police officers do not equate to safety and our own district data shows this punitive approach doesn’t work.

Since Rochester school district changed its Code of Conduct, there had been a sharp decrease in suspensions. According to a report released by the Children’s Agenda, the decrease in suspensions actually decreased the failure of courses by 28 percent. That positive academic impact for students, combined with supports like restorative practice coaches, meant Rochester was on the right track.

However, progress was lost when the restorative coaches were cut, and while suspensions had decreased, the racial disparities in suspensions remained. Data shows that Black students were suspended 2.5 times more often than their white peers, and students with disabilities were suspended two times as often as their general education peers.

Studies of unconscious bias show that adults of all races are more likely to see Black youth as older and behaving with more intention, rather than young people needing support to make better choices. Students with disabilities are sorely lacking in supportive personnel who can help mitigate issues that arise when administrators, teachers and school resource officers misunderstand behavior arising from a student’s disability.

The opportunity to shift gears and move toward intervention rather than punitive measures has presented itself again. Our schools now have the funding necessary to hire restorative coaches, they can continue to look at school climate holistically, and they have the opportunity to implement the Judith S. Kaye School Solutions Not Suspensions Act.  This bill, currently in the state Legislature, would end the reliance on suspensions as the default way to discipline students. For children in pre-K through third grade, it would eliminate suspensions completely, except in cases that federally mandate it. For older children, the bill would reduce the length of maximum suspensions from 180 days—which is an entire school year—to 20 days, which is about one month of school. For students who are suspended, the bill would provide academic instruction to help them keep up with their schoolwork and ensure a smoother transition back into the classroom.

Perhaps most importantly, the Solutions Not Suspensions Act establishes a framework of proven methods that hold students accountable and help them learn from their mistakes, while keeping them in the classroom as much as possible. It calls upon all New York schools, including private and charter schools, to incorporate these proven alternatives—including restorative practices and mental health counseling—in order to create a school climate based on accountability, cooperation, and trust. This is a big culture shift and a needed one, especially for Black and brown students and students with disabilities, who are disproportionately harmed.

Suspensions have been used as a disciplinary tactic for a long time, but so was corporal punishment at one time. We’ve learned how to modify school discipline before, as our scientific understanding of children’s health and welfare grew, and we must do it again. There are proven alternatives that support the healthy growth and maturity of young people, who are still learning how to handle life’s challenges.

New York legislators must take action to ensure every student has an equal opportunity to succeed. Suspending struggling youth only compounds the underlying issues that cause them to act out. Punishing poverty and trauma just perpetuates the cycle of both. The state Legislature must pass the Solutions Not Suspensions bill in 2023 to ensure equity for all students and create safer, more supportive school environments.

Rosemary Rivera is Rochester-based co-executive director of Citizen Action of New York. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

12 thoughts on “A chance to succeed: solutions not suspensions in Rochester

  1. I don’t agree that there should be more government intervention with great “sounding” bills like Solutions Not Suspensions. I would much prefer to have open forums of community members to try to come up with solutions. I volunteered in a city school cafeteria in 2019. There were way too many kids in the cafeteria, it was very chaotic, loud and undisciplined. Kids I spoke with were often from single parent homes.. Several also had an incarnated parent. These kids, these families need help. And I wonder what these “solutions” are? I would think schools and communities could come up with great solutions for their own community and not get a one size fits all from bureaucrats..

  2. (T) RUTH TURNER Might help to TURN RCSD Toward Truth and Thriving
    I was just thinking about Dr. Ruth Turner, who just returned to Rochester Schools. Perhaps she can be a liaison between the School District and people in Rochester, who want to offer advice and talents, to FLIP students and teachers, around. Enough is enough!
    “Common sense is not so common.” (Voltaire)
    We need a superintendent, with super INTENTIONS. We need principals with PRINCIPLES.
    We need school board members, who are not BORED of education! And we need TEACHERS, who are not CHEATERS (same letters) Enough is enough!
    Welcome back, Dr. Ruth Turner!
    Harry S. Pearle, Ph.D. http://www.SavingSchools.org

  3. Rochester Schools Need Constant Outside Advice, from the Community (WE FLIP)
    I mentioned the general idea of FLIPPING EDUCATION, below.
    The problem is that Rochester School leaders and teachers do not invite community input, Instead, they tend to carry on and on, as if everything is AOK. Suspending suspensions doe not make RCSD, AOK. Why doesn’t the new Superintendent, invite outside advice and help?
    What are we afraid of? Students are suffering. Syria and Turkey invite help, but RCSD does not.

    In fact, you can get 3 minutes (180 seconds) before the Rochester School Board, and then you have to shut up. Hello? We have talented people, in the community, with years of experience in education, business, and life, who would be happy to share. But there is no real chance of that.
    WE FLIP (NY license plate, from a real estate agent) Let’s FLIP Rochester Education, now
    Harry S. Pearle, Ph.D. http://www.SavingSchools.org

  4. I recently tried to get the Democratic party’s designation for one of the positions on the school board. I have decades of business, management, teaching, and community activism experience. I wasn’t designated. A Black eighteen-year-old college student who graduated from the school of the Arts last year did as well as all the incumbents.
    The experience was enlightening in many ways. No question that there is a significant racial divide. There is also a well-supported effort to get as many Black students as possible into Charter Schools by City Democratic Leaders, including former Mayor Warren.
    I like to say that student success is like them sitting on a three-legged stool. The first leg is parent and home support for a child’s success. If parents no longer have faith in long-established institutions, their children will fail. The second leg is Community Support for public education. A vacuum is created if the community isn’t active in supporting student success because they don’t have additional role models to emulate or to aspire to participate in the local economy.
    The third leg is the institution of public education. That includes teachers, administrators, policies, procedures, in-school support structures such as social workers, the teachers’ unions, and state and federal guidelines.
    As a taxpaying citizen of the City, I am furious that collectively the RCSD gets nearly a BILLION dollars annually and has struggled for decades to produce competent graduates.
    We need to be clear that the primary responsibility of the school board is fiduciary and hiring and overseeing the Superintendent, not micromanaging him or her or seeking to promote personal or political agendas.
    Our community must make every effort to engage with parents so that they respect and support the systems that support learning. Out-of-school suspensions are a symptom of systemic failure of all three legs of the stool. If the community wants change, we need to do a deep dive into why students act out in school and address the root cause rather than the superficial manifestation of societal failure.

  5. It’s interesting that nowhere does she discuss the impact of disruptive students on their fellow student and the ability of the teachers to teach. It seems that should be the more inportant issue. The unintended consequence of fewer suspensions could be less overall learning for the many. With academic performance at exremely low levels, especially in urban areas, it seems all effort should be made to improve that before considering action that may further degrade it.

    • While you are spot on, your concern is, apparently, not even a consideration. While it appears to the system that Rochester’s urban educational success is not the issue, this equity thing, (good or bad) is paramount. Even if that equity means lowering the educational and social bar. Instead of giving kids a chance to find their place in their educational journey, we put them in their place. If the RCSD system could only get out of the way and allow kids to explore, experience and be taught the way they learn. It can be done, it is possible. It’s almost like the RCSD is scared stiff that if they were to change, kids would respond. It would prove them wrong, decades worth of wrong. That thought might be worse to them then a positive K-12 educational journey for our kids. I think I would have trouble living with that, waking up in the morning, looking in the mirror and realizing that I was responsible for those decades of educational failure.

  6. We are all aware that smoking causes cancer and other related medical misery. So we decide the address the cancer with better treatment and we address all the other issues related to smoking, looking for a cure. The fact of the matter is, if you smoke you can be assured of medical misery in the future. But wait….did you know if we addressed the smoking issue, stopped the smoking, all of those medical issues, including cancer could be avoided? It is similar to alcohol addiction and all of its medical misery including liver disease/transplants. My question is, what causes are associated with suspension? Could it be that kids a academically bored? Could it be that they don’t see why they should learn that “stuf”? I’d say that is precisely why there are attitudes and suspensions. Instead of addressing the root cause for behavior problems we normalize suspension, but we don’t address the why…the root cause. We have the expertise, we have institutions of higher learning, but for some reason the urban kids are written off as problematic and not worth… teaching the way they learn.

  7. WE FLIP (Try Slogans to Encourage All Students to Succeed?)
    It’s great to learn that suspensions are being suspended. But there must be more we can do to help every student to, not only survive, but to thrive.

    One day, while walking, I noticed a car with the license plate, “WE FLIP.” The driver told me she was in the business of FLIPPING HOUSES, in real estate. This got me thinking, in a general way. Why can’t we try to FLIP students around, from failing to succeeding? Why not work on the attitude of all students and all teachers, constantly?

    We could begin, to FLIP students, by posting some ideas on school web pages. Of course FLIPPING is easier said, then done, But if we can spend billions of dollars on education, why can’t we come up with lists of helpful slogans, for starters? Why the endless wait?

    “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an action and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” (Emerson and others)

    Thanks. Harry S. Pearle, Ph.D. http://www.SavingSchools.org

  8. While I certainly understand the concern that keeping a child out of school (suspension) is likely to hinder their academic progress, I found it disappointing that the article didn’t explain what the proven alternatives are. What “restorative practices” provide meaningful accountability, safety, and academic progress?

  9. I agree and hope the legislators pass the Solutions Not Suspensions bill. But we need more… There have been excellent letters written to Rochester Beacon that suggest change that dramatically improves graduation rates and LEARNING. We need bold action! A change in School Board! A Change in leadership within the School administration! And the addition of Monroe County leader’s participating on the School Board and alongside the administration. We have soooo much talent in Monroe County!
    Let’s make it happen for 2024!

  10. Rosemary, thank you for writing this piece on school suspensions. As a long-time school administrator & superintendent, I’ve experienced the realities of suspending students. You state that: “Since Rochester school district changed its Code of Conduct, there had been a sharp decrease in suspensions.” Of course, there was a decrease in suspensions when suspensions were no longer allowed. I haven’t read the Solutions Not Suspensions bill but wish you had referenced its contents in your article. One of the hardest administrative decisions is whether or not to suspend a student. There are times, however, when a suspension may be best for the student & the other students and adults [e.g., dangerous behavior]. I don’t favor school suspensions, but I do favor school safety.

  11. Some years ago, I took a tour of an RCSD school, taken around by the school’s principal. The question of “suspension “ came up and she proudly led me to the “Hive”, an in-school suspension suite where the student, who elsewhere would have been suspended, was getting 1 on.1 tutoring, social work assistance, and, if necessary, a psychological assessment. The student’s education continued without the stigma and unintended consequences of out of school suspension. Did the « Hive » disappear? It made good sense!

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