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Growing coalition seeks to end out-of-school suspensions in Buffalo Public Schools

Kyle S. Mackie
A group of Buffalo residents met Thursday at the Northland Workforce Training Center to discuss the number of suspensions in Buffalo Public Schools.

A community meeting about the number of suspensions in Buffalo Public Schools drew dozens of parents, students and activists Thursday night. The growing coalition is calling for a ban on suspensions in pre-K through third grade, with the ultimate goal of ending all out-of-school suspensions.

Thursday’s meeting was the second of four planned public forums on what organizer Duncan Kirkwood says is a suspension crisis in the city’s public schools.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie / WBFO News
Duncan Kirkwood is helping organize a local coalition with the ultimate goal of banning out-of-school suspensions in Buffalo Public Schools.

“We know out-of-school suspension doesn’t actually help children, doesn’t help families [and] doesn’t help the school, but we’re still doing it. And in Buffalo, we’re doing it more than anywhere else in New York State,” said Kirkwood, a Buffalo native and family fellow trained in community organizing by the national nonprofit organization The Education Trust.

“The data shows us that every school district in New York State has decreased their numbers of out-of-school suspensions—now, they’re still bad—but they have at least gone down, except for Buffalo, whose numbers have actually increased.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie / WBFO News
Issa Abdelkadir, a 10th grade Buffalo Public Schools student, speaks about how multiple long-term suspensions forced him to repeat first grade.

WBFO has not independently verified that claim, but a 2018 New York Equity Coalition report found that Buffalo had the highest overall suspension rate in the state for the 2016-2017 school year: Nearly 14% of students in the district had at least one out-of-school suspension. Buffalo also suspended Black students at a higher rate than the other “Big 4” urban school districts (Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers), with about 1 in 5 Black students getting suspended during the year.

Kirkwood said those trends don’t seem to be improving, despite a significant effort by Buffalo Public Schools to train teachers in restorative justice practices and reduce out-of-school suspensions, a punishment closely tied to the school-to-prison pipeline.

“From September to November of 2019, according to Buffalo Public Schools’ website, right, they suspended over 2,200 students out-of-school,” Kirkwood said. “Around 1,900 were Black and Hispanic. Six hundred and eleven were pre-K through third grade... that is ridiculous.”

WBFO's review of the district's suspension data for September-November 2019 tallied 393 long-term and 2,281 short-term suspensions, including 344—not 611—total suspensions for students in pre-K through third grade. A district spokesperson also said Friday the overall number of suspensions is on a downward trend from past years, with short-term suspensions in the three-month window down by 104 from the 2018-2019 school year and long-term suspensions up by 48.

Credit Kyle S. Mackie / WBFO News
Dr. Tonja Williams, center, is Buffalo Public Schools' associate superintendent for student support services.

Attending the meeting on behalf of the school district, Associate Superintendent for Student Support Services Dr. Tonja Williams did not dispute the numbers Kirkwood cited but clarified that they include repeat offenders. She also said out-of-school suspensions for pre-K through third graders can only be triggered by Level 3 or 4 violent offenses, as outlined by the district’s student code of conduct, such as attacking a fellow student or school personnel.

“We don’t want suspensions in the Buffalo schools. We want our children to come to school, we want them happy, we want them ready to learn,” Williams said, “but there are things that happen to keep schools safe, where unfortunately we have gotten to a place where we have to have some out-of-school suspensions.”

The coalition of parents, students, faith leaders and other community stakeholders is organizing using Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change. Sam Radford, the longtime former president of the District Parent Coordinating Council, said the group’s prior meeting focused on the first step of information gathering. Thursday’s meeting moved on to steps two and three: education and personal commitment. Attendees also discussed the coalition’s proposed initial demand of a ban on all out-of-school suspensions in pre-K through third grade, a goal that is currently the focus of a statewide movement called “Solutions Not Suspensions.”

Credit Kyle S. Mackie / WBFO News
Sam Radford leads the coalition through Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, early stages of Six Steps for Nonviolent Social Change.

Williams said there’s already a district policy in place recommending that parent conferences be used instead of suspensions for students in pre-K through sixth grade. “We have a regulation,” she said, “If there are needs as far as ensuring that the regulation is being implemented that require training and resources, then we can talk about that.”

Still, several attendees committed to asking the Buffalo Board of Education for a ban at its next regular meeting on Feb. 12.

“Yes, the district is taking steps [to reduce out-of-school suspensions] and the superintendent and the board are expressing strong, strong leadership,” Kirkwood said. “But we as parents have to keep pushing and pushing and pushing because these are our kids. These are our communities, too.”

Another issue raised by several parents and students Thursday is whether or not the coalition should seek to remove Buffalo Police officers from Buffalo Public Schools. That issue is set to be further discussed at the next coalition meetings on Feb. 20 and March 28.

This article was updated on Jan. 31 to add WBFO's review of Buffalo Public Schools' suspension data for September-November 2019 and additional responses from the school district.

Kyle Mackie is a multimedia journalist with reporting experience in Israel and the Palestinian territories, the Western Balkans and New York City. She joined WBFO to cover education and more in June 2019.
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