Upstate New York high school students speak freely about suspensions, which can negatively affect youth for years.
“The minute I do something or anybody who looks like me does anything wrong — automatic suspension, automatic expulsion,” one Black 17-year-old student said.
“I think it doesn’t make sense,” a high school junior added. “If you’re doing bad in school, like, why would you miss more school?”
At a recent gathering organized by the Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition, eight students sat in a tight circle to speak their minds freely about school suspensions. A larger circle surrounded them, folks who were just there to listen: public interest lawyers, philanthropists, other students and members of a social justice group. The students who gathered at a local community center on a recent Wednesday afternoon were not in trouble, not being called out or pushed out, not headed for punishment. This time, the students from Buffalo, New York’s public high schools could speak honestly about their experience.
“In reality, I like going to school. I like learning,” said a student who felt his teachers had little faith in him. “It puts me down when the teacher just doesn’t pay any mind to me.”
Across New York in the 2016-17 academic year, school districts statewide suspended a student at least once every minute, state data show. According to the New York Equity Coalition, Buffalo had the highest suspension rates in the state during the 2016-17 school year.
Most of the youth in the inner circle at the Oct. 12 community event had faced suspensions during their time in local schools, and they were gathered to talk about it in a restorative justice circle. The method is deployed in schools, community settings and the courts by the Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition. The aim: “peace-building,” holding people accountable for their actions, and “moving away from focusing on rules broken and punishment to focusing on repairing harm.”
State law allows students to be suspended for up to 180 days for a variety of misbehaviors that violate the code of conduct — from disrupting class to fighting.
As they spoke out at the event held at the Resource Council of Western New York, the students mostly agreed that the suspensions they experienced or saw in their schools felt excessive. Some claimed to be unfairly suspended after they were victims of bullying, or defended a friend. Others described being sent home for minor infractions, such as violating the school dress code.
Charis Humphrey, a youth engagement coordinator for the justice coalition, moderated the circle. She asked the students about the first moments when they stepped on school campuses: “How do you feel when you enter the building?”
At least one kid said “chill,” but most expressed discomfort with being at school. The teen who felt suspensions were too “automatic” joined in too. He said his campus feels like “a war zone sometimes, because you have to protect yourself.”
‘Speaking from the heart’
Suspensions have roiled public schools even as research shows that low-income students, children with special needs, and youth of color are suspended at higher rates than their peers. Data published by the Buffalo Public Schools reports that in the 2021–22 academic year, about 14% of Buffalo grade schoolers were suspended for either a maximum of five days or for more than five days. Black students and other youth of color made up the highest share.
The Imprint attended the restorative justice circle to learn more about the people behind the statistics. A reporter was allowed to observe and take notes, as long as the youth participating were not identified by name.
“This is just a time for us adults to really listen to what’s being shared and giving folks an opportunity to be heard,” Humphrey said. She instructed the group to respect confidentiality, and to consider “speaking from the heart and listening from the heart.”
Youth advocates have worked through various means in the Buffalo region, including gatherings like these, to reduce the number of student suspensions. In addition to the restorative practice, they’ve spoken at school board meetings to oppose policies they consider unfair, and fought for quality legal representation when students face suspension hearings.
The work is underscored by a sense of urgency. A 2017 study from the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges says that as a result of being suspended, students are “likely to fall behind on coursework, disengage academically, and potentially drop out of school.”
The goal of the gathering was to hear directly from students about the impact of their suspensions and, hopefully, to work toward finding solutions. This is the second year of the Erie County Restorative Justice Coalition’s series of events titled #PUSHOUT.
‘Why is everyone getting suspended?’
A 21-year-old participant told the group that her relative was bullied at school, but nothing was done to stop it. She said as a result, she and her cousin decided to fight the bully. But she was later suspended, preventing her from taking her final exams. That sent her into a spiral of missing school, leaving her behind in her studies. Still, she is set to graduate this month.
A 10th-grader explained that when he moved to the U.S., his classmates mocked him because he wasn’t fluent in English. As the bullying escalated, he began skipping school.
One high school senior, 17, said even summer school was riddled with suspensions. She had attended school during the break to make up for classes she missed during the school year due to personal reasons.
“Every time I came in during the summer, more and more kids kept disappearing,” she said. “I’m like, ‘Why is everyone getting suspended from summer school?’ We’re here for a reason.”
‘Solutions not suspensions’
Although school officials deem suspensions necessary to maintain basic rules on campus, parents and youth advocates worry that they are more harmful than helpful. And they say suspensions are not always fair.
Carly Hite, a children’s attorney with the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, wrote in a New York Civil Liberties Union op-ed that some students are ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing but still suffer the consequences. One student she represented was found to be not guilty of the charges that led to the suspension but still missed an entire month of school due to the proceedings.
Research shows a connection between school suspensions and juvenile arrests. Last month, the Rochester-based policy research organization, The Children’s Agenda, released “Solutions Not Suspensions,” a policy analysis that found youth who have been suspended are more than twice as likely to be arrested. Even 12 years after being suspended, a youth is 30% more likely to have been arrested and 23% more likely to have spent time in prison.
The analysis is named after the Judith Kaye School Solutions Not Suspensions Act, a bill introduced in the New York Legislature seven years ago that hasn’t yet received enough support to make it to the floor for a vote. If passed, the legislation would reform disciplinary practices in the state’s public and charter schools. Proposed changes include a restriction on the use of suspensions for students in pre-kindergarten through third grade except in the most serious situations. It would also place a limit on the maximum length of a school suspension — reducing the time from 180 to 20 days and giving suspended students opportunities to get instruction and take exams, so they don’t fall behind academically. The bill would bar suspensions for “minor infractions such as tardiness, dress code violations, minor misbehavior.”
Additionally, the law would include the use of restorative justice in school districts’ codes of conduct. The restorative practice originates from Indigenous communities such as the Maori and Navajo. Some criminal justice systems in the U.S. have adopted restorative justice in recent years, and the National Education Policy Center has documented the benefits of including the method in education settings.
New York state categorizes suspensions as “short-term” if they last five days or less and “long-term” for those lasting more than five days. One month into the current school year, the Buffalo Public Schools system had already levied 380 short-term suspensions and 75 long-term suspensions, according to district data. The ratio of suspended to unsuspended students has largely been unchanged since 2015, which is the oldest available data from the school district.
But as of late September, the numbers of suspensions that month were lower than last year at the same time, officials stated in a press release.
In 2020, New York Attorney General Letitia James launched an investigation into disproportionate suspension of Black and Hispanic students in the Buffalo Public Schools, according to the Buffalo News. A spokesperson in James’ office responded to a request for comment on the status of that investigation by stating: “We do not have anything to share at this time.”
Some students spoke about this concern during the October restorative justice circle. One teenager said while defending himself against a white student who hit him in the locker room in sixth grade, he was suspended for five days and missed a school trip.
“That was my first incident, my first instance of seeing the world as a young Black man,” he said.
Later in the afternoon, the large group separated into four smaller circles to have more intimate conversations between the youth and the adults. They also wrote messages on postcards expressing their feelings about suspensions. The postcards would be delivered to Buffalo Public School officials.
The Imprint requested comment from the district’s spokesperson about their support for restorative practices in the district, but they did not respond to inquiry by the time of publication.
But Judith Gerber, the chief attorney for the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo’s unit for children, was in attendance. Gerber, whose staff represents youth in juvenile justice or child welfare matters, said her nonprofit law office has long been concerned by the frequent use of suspensions in schools and “zero tolerance” policies.
“It is a strategy that social science tells us simply does not work,” Gerber said. “Suspensions isolate children, diminish their sense of belonging, and reduce their chances for success in school and the community.” The outcome harms those who may need school the most, she added: “We know it disproportionately impacts children who have the greatest reason to be in school and supported by schools.”
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