School children who’ve been suspended, teachers, moms pushing strollers and youth justice advocates marched from the Rochester City School District’s headquarters Wednesday evening to the Monroe County Jail to publicize statewide legislation that would reform school discipline practices and disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline.
The dozens gathered to argue for restorative justice when there are fights or antisocial behaviors on school campuses, and for greater care and attention for kids who are sent home from school. They hoisted signs stating, “Solutions Not Suspensions” as district staff and passersby looked on.
Rochester parent Tiffany Howard said she showed up to protect the future of her 6-year-old son, who has autism.
“Suspensions make things worse,” she told the crowd. “They hurt our children’s social and emotional well-being, academic growth and disproportionately impact Black and brown students.”
Bills similar to Senate Bill S1040, authored by Sen. Robert Jackson (D), have been attempted for five legislative sessions but have yet to make it to a floor vote. If passed, the bill will reduce the maximum number of days a student could be suspended in a single school year to 20 days. It would also require schools to incorporate restorative practices into their discipline guidelines. Academic instruction and school work for suspended students would also be required for public and charter school students.
Nidia Benitez, a parent advocate with The Children’s Agenda and Citizen Action of New York, said the bill would “create a welcoming and peaceful environment where our children can learn and make use of restorative practices, as opposed to just resorting to suspending a child.”
According to the state Office of Children and Family Services, New York education laws require schools to give students who’ve been sent home from school homework and alternative academic instruction such as tutoring. But students, parents and research groups rallying Wednesday said those mandates are loosely enforced, and a more robust state law is needed to ensure the measures are followed for each student.
Students’ situations often worsen when they are kicked out of school — especially when they end up with too much unstructured and unsupervised time, critics say. To underscore that hazard, the Rochester protesters stopped in front of the county jail after their march. Formerly suspended teens and their parents delivered speeches through a bullhorn pointed toward the detention center’s tinted windows.
Vice president of the Rochester City Council, teacher Mary Lupien, reflected on the impact of exclusionary discipline.
“We know the main reasons that kids are joining gangs is for a sense of belonging,” she said. “Excluding them from the school community and telling them that because of their behavior, they are no longer a part of us, is the opposite of what we need to be doing.”
A parent, Tianna Johnson, said two of her kids — including a daughter who is now in ninth grade — had been suspended from their former schools in the nearby Greece School District. Johnson said she decided to home-school her daughter after she was suspended multiple times in elementary school, making it difficult for her to leave work to care for her. During these suspensions, she said her daughter received “busy work,” but nothing remotely equivalent to the instruction she would have received in the classroom.
“I wanted to see what I can do to intervene in a way that the school can’t, because they have their hands full,” she said.
One teen who spoke out Wednesday said he received a suspension from the Rochester City School District for not allowing staff to see if he had a video recording on his phone of a fight in class.
Some of those assembled in support of the pending legislation acknowledged that exclusionary discipline is at times needed in extreme circumstances. But all too often, the measure is excessive, they said, and teachers don’t provide the materials students need to stay on track with their studies. A 16-year-old girl with the youth organization Teen Empowerment offered an example: She told the crowd she was given a six-month suspension for fighting.
“I’m not saying suspensions are absolutely unnecessary,” she said. “But if it does get to that point where you are suspended, I feel like there should be more effort into discussing with those students so that when they return, they aren’t so far back behind in school to where it’s now a lost hope for being able to catch back up.”
Activists in Rochester have long fought to disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline — education and public safety policies that push students into the criminal justice system. In the months following the murder of George Floyd, educators, parents, and students pushed successfully to remove school resource officers employed by the Rochester Police Department from local campuses. In November 2021, the Rochester City School District approved funding to station the officers just outside school gates, and only during arrival and dismissal times — a policy that has continued this year.
Last October, The Children’s Agenda released its Solutions Not Suspensions report, which analyzed disciplinary data from 15 New York public school districts. The report found that suspensions disproportionately targeted youth of color and students with disabilities.
While some school staff members have said lengthy suspensions are necessary for situations where students are violent or disruptive, a report produced in 2019 for the New York State Education Department pushed back on that premise, noting: “Many of these concerns, even if intuitive, have been consistently proven to be ineffective by research.”
The authors concluded that exclusionary discipline, including everything from short-term classroom removals to long-term out-of-school suspensions “has long-term, cumulative, and negative effects on students — especially our students of color and with disabilities — and does nothing to solve the underlying issues or root causes that caused the initial misbehavior.”
Yet not all state legislatures have ensured an alternative. According to the policy research group, Education Commission of the States, as of May 2021, only 15 states had some sort of law that defines or limits short and long-term suspensions.