BUFFALO, N.Y. — Buffalo Public Schools say the out-of-school suspension rate so far has dropped by 21% compared to this time last year. During the first month of the 2021-22 school year, there were 353 out-of-school student suspensions, and this year there have been 282 so far.

Community advocacy groups held a town hall this week to hear experiences from parents with children in Buffalo Public Schools regarding suspensions.

"We had heard from a couple of community advocates that there was a suspension problem in the Buffalo Public Schools, particularly for students with limited English proficiency and student with disabilities," said Rae Shih, New York Civil Liberties Union education counsel.

Sam Radford, the director of Community Action Organization, says African American students and Latino students are also disproportionately suspended compared to their similarly situated peers. He says they are also concerned about the current number of students suspended.

"That suspension number, we feel like is under-reported,” said Radford. “Even though Buffalo has the highest suspension rate in the state, it's really a higher number because … we hear from parents constantly telling us that the school calls them and says, 'come pick up your child. We won't suspend them. Just keep them home for a couple days.'"

Radford says students then don't get the support they should get while out on suspension. He says they want to partner with the superintendent and school district about this issue.

"One of the other issues that we've found is that even when children are suspended, they're not getting their work and they have a right, they have a legal right, to get the same work they would have gotten if they weren't in school and if they were in school while they're on suspension," said Radford.

Shih says Buffalo is a community with a high percentage of people whose first language is not English.

"We've heard several reports that Buffalo Public Schools do not, and they're obligated to under state and federal law, do not provide interpreters for student suspension hearings, and they do not provide translated notices of the suspension sent home, so parents are unaware of what their rights are,” Shih said. “They're unaware of how they can contest these suspensions or even that they can they need to attend these suspension hearings in the first place.”

Advocates say all in all, suspension isn't the solution.

BPS did not immediately return a request for comment, but the district did release a statement Thursday night regarding declining suspension rates, saying:

"Out-of-school suspensions in the Buffalo Public Schools drop by approximately 21% compared to the same time period last year.  353 out-of-school student suspensions during the first month of the 2021-22 school year have decreased to 282 the first month of this year. 

Several key factors have contributed to the reduction this year including additional training our highly qualified and certified building leaders and teachers, and the adoption of a revised Board of Education approved Student Code of Conduct, which focuses on Social and Emotional Support.  The additional training has been in the areas of disproportionality, trauma informed care, restorative practices, and Cultural and Linguistically Responsive Initiatives. 

BPS anticipates the decreases will continue throughout the year as we broaden our reach by expanding partnerships and working with parents and caregivers.  School leaders are working hard to continuously improve school climates through social and emotional learning, restorative practices, increasing the number of support staff in buildings, providing interventions, and training for BPS security officers.  These key components are highlighted in the District’s Strategic Plan.

The District has developed preventative support initiatives rather than strictly focusing on punitive measures.  Continued work with key stakeholders including The Buffalo Peacemakers, Reverend Frederick Gelsey Jr., Say Yes Buffalo, and Most Valued Parent (MVP), a BPS Parent Congress Group, has increased coordination efforts with the City of Buffalo, the Buffalo Police Department (BPD), and the Niagara Frontier Transit Authority (NFTA).

In addition, all schools have mental health clinics, nurses, counselors, psychologists, social workers, and attendance teachers, who provide more individualized intervention support for all students. The reduction in suspension rates is evidence that fewer students are removed from the classroom and miss less instructional time.

BPS Superintendent, Dr. Tonja M. Williams shares that “Our children have faced unprecedented life experiences after a two-year pandemic that brought about extreme loss, grief, and isolation.  With a strong focus on restorative practices, and social and emotional learning, progress has been made within the District by lowering suspensions, which ultimately helps students focus on learning when they’re in the classroom.  99% of students in the Buffalo Public Schools have not experienced an out-of-school suspension this school year. That narrative of positivity must be uplifted!”