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.
Suspensions might sound normal to many, but suspending students from school is an outdated and punitive form of discipline that causes a lot of harm and should be used only as a last resort.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].