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City schools' suspensions challenged


A new report examining student conduct and discipline shows that suspensions continue to be alarmingly high in the Rochester school district. More than 54,600 days of instruction were lost due to suspensions during the 2012-2013 school year, the report says. And most of the suspensions were for minor offenses.

A second finding is equally disturbing: black students were suspended at a disproportionately higher rate than their white peers for similar offenses. And black males with special education needs were most at risk for suspension.

The report is the work of Metro Justice, Alliance for Quality Education, Teen Empowerment, and the Advancement Project, says Eamonn Scanlon, co-chair of Metro Justice's education committee.

The overuse of suspensions is a national problem, Scanlon says. And suspensions play a pivotal part in what social workers and educators refer to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

"This [report] isn't meant as a harsh criticism of the RCSD," Scanlon says. "It's a community problem and we have to come together as a community and tackle it."

Almost all of the data in the report was provided by the school district, Scanlon says, and Superintendent Bolgen Vargas has been supportive of the effort.

According to the report, one in 10 city students was suspended during the 2012-2013 school year. And out of 6,373 suspensions, 88 percent were for nonviolent incidents. The majority were the result of disruptive behavior that involved no physical contact, the report says -- often beginning as minor incidents that escalated.

The report shows that suspensions were highest for ninth graders in 2012-2013, and that often snowballs into academic problems for students, Scanlon says. Many students appear to experience a "transition jump" from eighth grade to ninth, he says. The loss of instruction time as a result of suspensions causes many students to fall behind, he says.

There is also a racial component to the suspensions, Scanlon says. Compared to their white peers, black students were 2.29 times more likely to be suspended, Latino students were 1.45 times more likely, and black students with disabilities were 2.6 times more likely.

The district recognizes the racial disparity in its approach to discipline and student conduct and is working on the problem, says Adele Bovard, deputy superintendent with the city school district.

The report, which supports the work under way by a community task force on school climate organized by the Rochester Area Community Foundation, recommends eliminating suspensions for minor incidents.

And it stresses the need to train teachers and school officials in alternative approaches that emphasize teaching students self-management and better decision-making.

Scanlon says that clarity about what constitutes minor, noncriminal offenses is also urgently needed.

"This isn't about being soft on discipline," he says. "It's more about having the right resources and services for students, parents, and teachers."

Metro Justice Report on RCSD Suspensions