In the world of public education, it is all too easy to use data as a weapon. Suspension data in Buffalo Public Schools was recently used in this manner, touting raw numbers and claims without context, comparison and sources. Out-of-date data and lack of available data statewide and across districts and schools makes any reliable analysis dubious.
Last year, unlike any other district or school, BPS launched a publicly available Data Dashboard to provide suspension data, almost in real time. This transparency should be lauded, rather than exploited. From the dashboard, here is what we know:
For this school year, as of Oct. 6, less than 1.10% of BPS students received a short-term suspension and 0.03% received a long-term suspension. Viewed the other way, 98.9% of students did not receive a short-term suspension and 99.7% did not receive a long-term suspension. Thirty-nine schools (58%) had three or fewer students receive a short-term suspension.
Since the 2014-15 school year, except for the 2017-18 school year, BPS has seen a gradual decline in the percentage of students who have received short-term suspensions. Long-term suspensions have shown decline with a slight uptick last school year, a result of an increase in severe and violent behavior from some students, a trend experienced beyond BPS.
Viewpoints: Student suspensions: Parents play an important role in reducing suspensions
"Parents, teach your kids not to retaliate. Teachers, show your students how to solve conflict. Community members, step up to help! It’s going to take us all," Keith Jones says.
In my 20 years as an educator, never have I experienced such an emphasis on the social-emotional needs of students in education. In BPS, there has been significant investment in restorative practices, trauma-informed care, social-emotional learning and culturally responsive teaching and practices. Seventy-five percent of all BPS staff have had training in restorative practices, with a stretch-goal of 100% in the future. We have hired additional mental health staff and have a multitude of community-based organizations working in our schools and with our students and families. There has been intentional work to address disproportionality in suspensions for students with disabilities and students of color.
This investment is positively impacting most students; however, we must be mindful that these approaches are not absolute, especially for a small percentage of students whose needs are most complex. If there is one thing I have learned as a school psychologist and as a parent, it is that academia does not have all the answers to our problems. Human behavior remains highly unpredictable, and much uncertainty exists for some of our most complicated cases. For instance, restorative practices cannot guarantee safety, in serious cases of harassment and violence. As a certified circle keeper, who has participated in and facilitated restorative practices, I have experienced times where it has not been effective, sometimes causing more harm to victims – the antithesis of restorative practices. Restorative practices are voluntary and there must be a true willingness to uphold a set of guidelines, as well as personally own and take responsibility for the harm caused and its restoration. Without this, it is at best inconsequential, and, at worst detrimental to all involved.
Personal ownership begins with the adults in a student’s life. If they are not owning the problem and the need for accountability, then it is of no surprise this is lacking in a student. When adults are challenging school policies and authority, and sometimes verbally and physically threatening school staff, it impacts the minds, relationships and behaviors of some students.
School districts have an utmost ethical and legal responsibility to keep students and staff safe. Per state regulation 100.2, school districts are required to have policies “for the removal from the classroom, school property and school functions of students and other persons who violate the code” and to use suspension for a student “who repeatedly is substantially disruptive” and for “acts that would qualify a pupil to be violent.” We have a dual responsibility to help each student, while maintaining safe, orderly and calm school environments that are conducive to learning and social development. Last year, we experienced staff egregiously injured from physical altercations. The sudden long-term absence of these injured staff from our schools and its impact on students’ learning and social-emotional wellness cannot be left out of this conversation.
Our students and schools need a balanced approach. Rising anxiety and mental health concerns require not just empathy and therapy, but clear and enforceable expectations, restrictions and accountability. The latter is just as necessary as the former. Adults in a student’s life outside of school must be part of the solution, partnering with schools to hold students accountable, ensuring safety in and around our schools, and cooperating with getting our students help when it is needed.
Larry Scott, a school psychologist, is member-at-large & co-chair of the Educational Support Committee for the Buffalo Board of Education.