Another Voice: The BPS Board of Education has not done nearly enough to address suspensions
Buffalo Public Schools has a suspension crisis.
Last year alone, BPS handed out more than 7,700 out-of-school suspensions. About one in six students were suspended, likely making BPS the top-suspending district in the state. Among those kicked out of class were autistic kindergarten and first-graders and foster youth who were targets of relentless, and unaddressed, bullying. Some students were suspended for months at a time, typically without any tutoring or instruction.
Even a single suspension leaves a student more likely to fall behind, drop out, and wind up behind bars. Research also shows suspensions damage student mental health and hurt school climate. This is an unacceptable risk in a school system in which more than one in three students report feeling sad or hopeless, and more than one in ten reports attempting suicide.
The BPS Board of Education has not done nearly enough to address the problem. Members have instead doubled down on the moderate progress seen earlier this school year. But January 2023’s suspension numbers eclipsed January 2022’s, and severe racial disparities among suspended students persist. Formal written appeals, highlighting systemic legal violations in BPS’ suspension practices, have been entirely ignored.
When a group of BPS parents and student advocates spoke about this civil rights issue at a public session in December, two Board members walked off the stage, rather than hear out the students they took an oath to serve. A similar scene played out at a Board meeting in January, with members more interested in lecturing students than in listening to them.
Students’ civil rights cannot be ignored or lectured away. Without decisive action, the harms from BPS’ overuse of suspensions will continue falling disproportionately on Black and low-income students, those with disabilities and English language learners. The learning losses will add up, students will fall behind and the cycle of disruption will continue.
There is a better way. Other large urban school districts, including New York City, have driven down suspensions using proven alternatives that keep kids physically and emotionally safe. Students, parents, community members and even the State Education Department are calling for a restorative approach to discipline that teaches, rather than punishes.
The Solutions Not Suspensions Act, pending in the state legislature, would prioritize programs that address the root causes of classroom disruptions – programs that build and repair relationships among students and adults, reduce conflicts, and create safer schools for all. The Board should publicly endorse the bill. It also can, and must, immediately incorporate key provisions of the bill into the BPS Code of Conduct, such as banning suspensions of PK-3 students (a move seemingly supported by Superintendent Williams) capping suspensions at twenty days and eliminating vague “insubordination”-related infractions.
Students are asking for safe and supportive schools. It is long past time for BPS to listen.
This piece was originally published in Buffalo News