The city’s school district is looking to implement new disciplinary strategies produced by a committee convened by the schools superintendent to reduce out-of-school suspension for students in pre-kindergarten through second grades.
The committee presented its 20-page report to the Board of Education on Wednesday evening. It recommends 16 strategies to reduce out-of-school suspension. 11 of those strategies – among them counseling, pairing students with teachers through a buddy system, and lunch detention — can be put in place without funding.
“When we suspend Pre-K to second grade children, we already set them up for failure,” said deputy superintendent Eileen Shafer.
There are also five strategies – among them Yoga, assigning behaviorists to schools, assisting students to resolve conflicts in small groups through something called restorative justice and professional development to discourage suspension – that will require the district to expend funds.
“What did I do that I’m in trouble? Let’s talk about those infractions,” said Sandra Diodonet, assistant superintendent. The committee recommends a sequence of steps – non-verbal warning, verbal warning, talk with student, and parental contact – before a student is written up.
“Sometimes when you suspend a child and send them home they may come back and do the same thing. They haven’t learned anything. They don’t know why they were suspended,” added Linda Reid, president of the Parent Education Organizing Council (PEOC). “You have to get to the root of the problem to find out what is going on. You can’t just say a student is disruptive and they need to go home without trying to found out why.”
The committee, made up of advocates, parents, teachers, and school officials, also recommends a more simplified student code of conduct for students in Pre-K-2. Category II offenses like theft, having an imitation firearm, sexual harassment, and vandalism that at present result in out of-school-suspension will have the toughest penalty of five days of in-school suspension. Only category III offenses like having an explosive device, sexual assault, and attacking a district employee will result in out-of-school suspension.
John McEntee, Jr., president of the Paterson Education Association, the teachers union, has expressed concerns about the district’s move to change disciplinary policies due to political pressure from the release of data that showed the district issued out-of-school suspension to 238 students in kindergarten through second grade in 2015-16 school year.
McEntee has said offenses like bringing an imitation firearm to school or smoking inside building should result in out-of-school suspension. He is not alone, school board member Jonathan Hodges, said removing out-of-school suspension entirely may not be wise.
“I don’t like absolutes one way or the other: zero tolerance or we’re not going to do anything. Both things can backfire. When you don’t suspend any children that can be a problem as well,” said Hodges.
Hodges said a student who brings a knife to school and threatens fellow students or staff deserves out-of-school suspension. A state law passed last year prohibits schools from issuing out-of-school suspensions to students in PreK-2nd grades starting July 1st, 2017 except for cases where students violate the Zero Tolerance for Guns Act and if the student’s conduct is violent or sexual in nature and endangers others.
State-appointed district superintendent Donnie Evans put the new law into effect on November 1st, 2016.
The committee’s report received praise from some school board members.
“This is a great formula here,” said board member Emanuel Capers. “Why don’t we have that district wide?”
“Trust me, when we can do it in the elementary schools, we do do it,” replied Diodonet.
The district may need to figure out a way to reduce overall suspension in the district. Reid points out the district has been disproportionately suspending African-American students. Of the students issued out-of-school suspensions in 2013-14 school year, 55-percent were African-American. 26-percent of the district’s students identified as Black that year, according to data the district reported to the United States Department of Education.
The committee’s report listed state-wide statistics, but did not include any local data. Lilisa Mimms, school board member, said the district should have included parents from schools that have high suspension rates.
“We need to have more parent participation in the committee. We need to include some of those parents,” she said of parents whose children have received suspension. “This parents list does not represent that data. When you have 37 people here, there shouldn’t be just 7 parents. We need to make sure parents are at the table.”
Schools officials made no mention of when the new strategies would be implemented at Wednesday’s meeting.
Hodges, looking at the report, said many of the strategies point to counseling. He said to fully implement all of the strategies will require staffing and a significant budget.