Conduct discussion in RCSD brings out deep-rooted issues


The Rochester school board has until its June meeting to handle an issue that has been festering for years: how to work with misbehaving students and their parents. 

Board members have received a draft proposal of a new code of conduct policy that aims to replace punitive approaches to discipline with restorative justice practices. For instance, under the new policy, disruptive students would be removed from the classroom via suspensions or police action only in the most extreme situations. 

Board members say that they will review the draft policy, hold at least one public input meeting on it, and hopefully vote on it in June. 

Work on the new policy began more than a year ago under former city school superintendent Bolgen Vargas, and included the involvement of a wide range of students, parents, educators, community groups, and activists. And there were numerous fits and starts before getting to the draft that’s before the school board.

Most recently, the board approved a new contract with the Rochester Teachers Association with language that struck many as insensitive, and maybe even contradictory, to the tone and direction of the new policy. Board members have tried to assure parents and students that they are serious about implementing a new approach to discipline. 

But the code of conduct policy is the sliver and not the infection; it is a piece of a much larger national conversation concerning race, mutual understanding, and human dignity. 

And it’s an extremely difficult, often polarizing conversation to have. Many, though not all, city school district parents, students, and activists believe that a root cause of the misapplication of harsh discipline, primarily toward black male students, is due to the racist attitudes of a largely white, female, and suburban teaching staff. Some parents and activists say that these teachers simply don’t understand the cultural fiber or the discriminatory experiences that many of students face every day.

Instead educating themselves about their students’ race, culture, and personal needs, they say, it’s easier for some teachers to just kick the troublemakers out of their classrooms. And many city parents have complained for years about being disrespected by teachers and administrators, and say that they don’t feel welcome when they visit their child’s school.

Numerous national reports confirm that black male youth are disproportionately punished compared to their white peers for similar infractions. Worse, these youth too often get swept into the criminal justice system and pay an inordinately high price for some of the rash things that many young people do.

But many district teachers see the situation differently. They see many students who are suffering from trauma from exposure to violence, drug and alcohol use, homelessness, loss of a parent or sibling to incarceration, or sometimes losing a loved one to an early death due to inadequate health care.

Some teachers say that the problem with disruptive behavior is not related to their lack of instructional skills, but more about resources. Many students who need social-emotional help aren’t receiving it, they say. And handling fairly constant disruption cuts into much needed instruction time, they say, and isn’t fair to the rest of the students.

The behavior problems, some teachers say, are contributing to the decline in student enrollment in city schools and factor into parents deciding to turn to charter schools or relocating to suburban districts.

This is a lot for any school board to handle, and finding ways to bridge the gap between the two sides won’t be easy. It’s naive to think that a new code of conduct policy alone will resolve such a complex issue, but it’s an important start.