Three years ago, things might have turned out differently for Schenectady sisters Kamiah and Kiani Beatty-Baker, seventh-graders at Mont Pleasant Middle School.
The siblings got caught up in a fight at the school one day in September; but instead of being slapped with a weekslong suspension, leaving them behind in schoolwork and disconnected from teachers, the sisters entered Schenectady’s diversion program, now in its second year.
Whenever a student in the district faces the potential of a suspension longer than five days, they head to a superintendent’s hearing to hash out the incident and determine a punishment. But now, students and their families have an alternative path: diversion.
If the families opt for diversion, essentially a “no contest” plea to whatever wrongdoing prompted the suspension, the students are assigned a support team, screened by a counselor or mental health worker, connected to counseling or other health services and monitored until they return to school and complete any prescribed treatment. The aim is to identify and treat underlying problems, rather than simply punishing students for behavior that is spurred by those problems, district officials have said.
In Kamiah and Kiani's case, the diversion team laid out what was expected: Enroll in classes at Washington Irving Education Center, take mindfulness classes to learn meditative and calming skills and get set up with twice-monthly anger management counseling — paid for by the district.
The diversion team, which includes a seat for the child’s parent or guardian, agreed after a few weeks that it was time for the girls to return to Mont Pleasant.
“Collectively, together, we decided when it was best for the girls to return to school,” said Shatiki Beatty-Baker, the girls’ mother, in an interview in November.
If they hadn’t selected diversion, the girls could have been suspended for as long as 60 days.
“We would’ve done seventh grade all over again,” Kamiah said. “We would’ve been just at home doing nothing. It would’ve been just me and Kiani in our home for two months doing nothing.”
The diversion program launched last year, but this year a higher portion of eligible families have selected the alternative. Last school year, 98 students were given the diversion option during the first 15 weeks of classes; 42 families chose diversion — about 43 percent of all students who faced suspension.
Over the first 15 weeks of the current school year, 61 families were asked to select between diversion and a superintendent’s hearing; 45 families picked diversion — nearly 74 percent.
District officials, during a December school board meeting, cited the diversion participation rates, along with broader data on disciplinary referrals for violations of the student code of conduct, as a sign that behavioral problems are lessening.
Declines in disciplinary referrals were not consistent across the district, but all three middle schools — a hotbed of behavioral challenges — saw dips in referrals. At Mont Pleasant Middle School, for example, administrators registered 941 conduct violations in the first quarter of last school year. That dropped to just under 400 incidents for the first quarter of this school year.
School leaders at Mont Pleasant attribute the improved numbers to an increase in activities and programs that encourage positive behavior, as well as clearer procedures for when staff mete out certain consequences.
“We are being consistent across the board,” said Mont Pleasant Principal Jeff Bennett. “We are trying to do a lot of incentives for kids that are positive, so it’s not just the negative: You’re suspended. You’re out the door.”
The number of disciplinary reports over the first quarter of the year ticked down, compared with last year, at six of the district’s 11 elementary schools — climbing in the other five — according to the district’s quarterly report. The high school reported more code-of-conduct violations in the first quarter, but school leaders noted the volume of serious incidents dropped: from 168 in the first four months of last year to 74 over the same time period this year.
While the high school still counts its code-of-conduct violations in the thousands — more than 3,600 in the first four months of the school year — school leaders were encouraged by the decrease in serious infractions. The high school has seen a 56 percent decline in "level-five" violations of the code of conduct, which include violence, assault, drug distribution and weapons possession.
The school’s overall infraction count was buoyed by efforts to crack down on truancy and students skipping study halls and other classes to wander the halls. High School Principal Diane Wilkinson said school staff have put an emphasis this year on citing students more consistently for missing multiple classes — a code-of-conduct violation. She said the approach is two-tiered: increase programs that support students, while raising expectations that students are in class doing their work.
“We want kids to know that, for every class, regardless of if it’s a core class or a study hall, the expectation is they are there,” Wilkinson said after the December school board meeting. “It’s not acceptable for you not to be in class.”