School Climate & Safety

Buffalo, N.Y., Schools Ban Out-of-School Suspension for Minor Missteps

By Nirvi Shah — April 25, 2013 3 min read
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A new code of conduct in Buffalo, N.Y., bans suspending students for minor misbehavior, a shift that could have a huge effect in a district where one in five students was suspended out of school during the 2009-10 school year.

School board members in the 34,000-student district voted this week to adopt the new code, prompted in part by the 2010 death of Jawaan Daniels, a student who was killed in a drive-by shooting while serving an out-of-school suspension for wandering his high school’s hallways during class.

“Everyone agreed that for a very long time, the district was far too casual about student suspensions,” said Will Keresztes, the district’s associate superintendent for student support, the Buffalo News reported. “Our purpose now is to be far more progressive, far less casual, and to be prepared to offer the kinds of interventions so that they don’t have these challenges in the first place.”

Advocacy groups including the Advancement Project, the Alliance for Quality Education, and Citizen Action of Western New York pushed the district to change how Buffalo students are disciplined—a scenario that is repeating itself all over the country.

“Buffalo’s new code of conduct is one of the most progressive in the country, and serves as a model for the entire nation,” said Jason Sinocruz, a staff attorney for Advancement Project who worked with the school district on the new discipline plan.

He said in a statement that the district’s new discipline code eliminates suspensions for minor misbehaviors and requires schools to use intervention and prevention strategies known to work, such as referrals to support staff, conflict resolution, and restorative justice.

The school district traded in a code of conduct that hadn’t been updated in more than a decade for a new document called Standards for Community-Wide Conduct and Intervention Supports. Instead of exclusively focusing on rules and consequences, the document dedicates pages to prevention and intervention strategies that are intended to change students’ behavior.

As the Buffalo News notes, the rewrite of the code of conduct is one of many steps the school district has taken to address student discipline.

In 2009-10, the district responded to community pressure by putting in place “Student Support Teams” in every building—a psychologist, social worker and coordinator and guidance counselor. In subsequent years, the board instituted a model that parent conferences in lieu of suspensions for minor offenses. Since 2009-10, Keresztes said, short-term suspensions have steadily fallen, from 12,369 in March 2009-10 to 7,480 as of this March, a decline of nearly 40 percent. ... The new policy includes nine pages of charts that clearly and specifically outline the types of intervention and consequences—Level 1 to Level 4—for each type of student offense, unlike the old policy. It also rules out consequences for various offenses. ... Some offenses, like bus disruptions, lying to school staff, and threats against school personnel, can result in district responses that run the full range of levels, depending on the severity of the offense and the age of the offender.

The advocacy groups said the new code of conduct is on par with a broader push by the National School Boards Association that urges schools to move away from exclusionary discipline policies that data shows disproportionately affect black and Latino students and students with disabilities.

Perhaps that push will reach Durham, N.C., public schools, where Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Advocates for Children’s Services project recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s office for civil rights against the school district over student discipline issues.

During the 2009-10 school year, the 33,000-student school district suspended 2,425 black students at least once, or about 14 percent of all black students in the district, compared to 3 percent of white students. The same year, Durham suspended 17 percent of all students with disabilities, compared with 8.4 percent of students without disabilities.

“We do not believe that [the school district] is intentionally discriminating against students, but the experiences of our clients and the districtwide data clearly show that its policies are disproportionately harming certain groups of students,” said Peggy Nicholson, an attorney with Advocates for Children’s Services.

“It is not in our clients’ or community’s best interests for students to be unfairly punished and repeatedly suspended out of school,” she said in a statement. “We filed this complaint on behalf of our clients because we know Durham public schools, in partnership with the Durham community, is capable of addressing these systemic disparities in a way that will enable all children to grow into productive adults.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.