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What you need to know for 09/26/2017

Schenectady officials aim to lessen ‘over-reliance’ on suspensions

Schenectady officials aim to lessen ‘over-reliance’ on suspensions

Code of conduct lists 5 levels of violations
Schenectady officials aim to lessen ‘over-reliance’ on suspensions
Signs in the peer mediation room at Schenectady High School in November 2015.
Photographer: Daily Gazette file photo

A plan aimed at lessening school administrators’ “over-reliance” on student suspensions shifts emphasis in the district’s code of conduct away from suspensions and toward “restorative” practices and a new diversion program.

A yet-to-be-finalized revision of the district’s student code of conduct eliminates superintendent’s suspension — an out-of-school suspension of more than five days — as a “possible response” to lower-level code violations, reserving it for the most serious offenses.

The conduct code rewrite also includes the addition of alternative “restorative” consequences that strive to address student behavior in more constructive ways, such as peer mediation or referral to mental-health services.

Superintendent Larry Spring said the district suspends more students than it should and that the updated conduct code “reduces the visibility of suspension.”

“What we are trying to get away from is an over-reliance on suspensions as an automatic response to student behavior,” Spring said.

But Spring also said administrators will still have the authority to suspend students who pose a safety risk to themselves or other students — a threshold standard for when suspension is appropriate, Spring said.

Through the first three quarters of last school year, district administrators had handed out nearly 2,000 separate student suspensions — around one-fifth of the district’s enrollment — ranging from one-day suspensions to bans lasting many weeks. (A full year’s summation of suspensions was not yet available, district officials said.)

The vast majority of those suspensions — 1,450 of them — last five days or less, the longest suspension a building principal can give out. The principals’ suspending powers remain largely intact as part of the code revision.

The code of conduct lists five levels of code violations, ranging from Level 1 violations like “failing to be in one’s assigned place” to the most serious Level 5 violations like “use of or threatening with a weapon.” Each list of violations is paired with a list “possible responses” or “possible consequences.”

In last year’s code, principal’s suspension — an out-of-school suspension of less than five days — was given as a possible response beginning with Level 2 violations; for Level 2 violations, in-school suspensions are listed as a possible response, with the principal’s out-of-school suspension beginning at Level 3, under the code revisions.

Superintendent’s suspensions, however, first appeared for Level 3 violations last year but is only listed as a response to Level 5 violations in the revised code. Spring said the Level 5 violations are encompassing enough to cover a student behavior or action that would justify a suspension lasting longer than five days.

The annual code of conduct revision also increases the district’s focus on “restorative” consequences that aim to deal with a student’s behavior in more constructive forms, such as peer mediation or a new diversion program that refers students to mental-health services like out-of-district counseling. When principals do find a need to suspend a student, they must also couple the suspension with another consequence like a parent conference, meeting with a teacher or counseling referral.

The high levels of students suspension — as well as the racial disparities evident in the district’s suspension data — became an issue pushed by school board candidates in the spring board election. Superintendent Spring has also said lessening suspensions and limiting their use to situations when student safety is in question is a goal.

Moreover, district officials in recent years have increased the use of a restorative justice program. If two students get in a fight in class or the hallway, for example, rather than being sentenced to suspensions or detentions, the students are given a chance to resolve their conflict in mediation with trained students.

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“In response to your misbehavior we have to work hard to find lots of other alternatives that have a greater efficacy ... because suspension tends to promulgate more of the behavior that we don’t like,” Spring said.

The changes to where suspension was listed as a possible consequence initially appeared more dramatic as district officials posted for public comment a draft that in one place included suspension and in other places excluded suspension as a possible punishment. When compared to last year’s code, it appeared the district was more drastically curtailing administrators’ suspension powers.

But Andrea Tote, the administrative point person on the conduct code revision, said Thursday that the committee involved in writing the code had “noticed a few alignment issues” and that more revisions were on the way.

The district code of conduct is updated annually and posted for public comment before the board adopts it sometime before the school year begins.

Unintended effect

David Miller, an associate professor of school psychology at the University at Albany, said research shows that suspension is often an ineffective strategy for changing student behavior. When student suspensions don’t decrease the targeted behaviors, Miller said, the consequence is not having the intended effect.

“Rather than functioning as a punisher, suspensions often function as a reinforcer for some students," said Miller, who was not familiar with the specifics of Schenectady schools. “In such situations, it allows kids to escape what for them is an aversive environment and, when that occurs, can inadvertently result in an increase — rather than a decrease — in problem behavior.”

Miller said schools and districts would be better served viewing student behavior through a “systems approach," including "actively teaching and reinforcing positive behaviors, such as what is done in school-wide positive behavior support."

He also emphasized the importance of an engaging curriculum, teaching students at appropriate instructional levels, a positive school climate, and understanding the function of a student's behavior. “We tend to dichotimize academics and behavior rather than view them as two sides of the same coin” he said.

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