Sewanhaka tackles racial disparity

Statewide report shows black students suspended at higher rates than white peers


The New York Equity Coalition, an organization of New York educational advocacy groups, released a report this month that reveals the racial disparities in suspension rates between students of color and their white peers throughout the state’s K-12 education system.

The report, “Stolen Time: New York State’s Suspension Crisis,” found that black students were more than six times as likely to be suspended than white students, and students who had been suspended were more likely to gain a reputation as “troubled” and fall behind in school.

“New York’s education system imposes suspensions on black students at unacceptable rates,” Ian Rosenblum, executive director of The Education Trust-New York, said.

“It is up to the state leaders to enact policies to stop these practices, and we hope this report adds to the urgency behind this important equity issue,” the report read.

The inequity identified in the report, and the need to decrease the disparity between historically marginalized student groups and white students, is what led the Sewanhaka Central High School District to open its new Academic Learning Center at the start of the 2018-19 school year.

The ALC, which operates inside Sewanhaka’s Career and Technical Education Building, serves students who are suspended from school. SCHSD Assistant Superintendent Kathleen Sottile explained that students who were suspended in the past would normally spend their time at home or out in the streets, but with the new ALC, the suspended students now attend a full day of classes, complete with counseling and social work services when necessary.

“The students work all day long, and at the end of it, they tell us that they don’t want to go back,” Sottile said of the rigor of studying at the center. “This is doing exactly what it’s supposed to do.”

Schools Superintendent Ralph Ferrie said he introduced the idea of the ALC to the district after attending an educational seminar over the summer last year. He met with superintendents and education leaders from across the country who were also looking for solutions to shrink the racial disparity in their own schools. Ferrie found that districts with similar demographics to Sewanhaka’s, which is a minority-majority district, opened in-school suspension centers to develop a suspension system that moved away from punishment and out-of-school time.

The “Stolen Time” report said suspension centers are a step in the right direction. The report revealed that out-of-school suspensions, when carried out frequently, represented a “step in the school-to-prison pipeline.” School climate was characterized by resentment and punishment as opposed to a supportive educational environment. Out-of-school suspensions can also perpetuate mistrust between black students and educators, because teachers begin to discipline and suspend black students more readily because they are seen as troublemakers. This, in turn, feeds into implicit biases that teachers might have.

The report demonstrated evidence of this when it found that teachers only suspended white students for serious offenses, such as smoking or vandalism, but black students for acts such as “loitering” and making “excessive noise.”

“This is a moment not to point blame or become defensive, but to recognize the disparities and how current regulated practices are manifesting to impact the education and growth of our children,” Ramon Peguero, chief executive officer of the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families and New York Equity Coalition member, said. “Every child deserves to be embraced and supported in their education, not pushed out from it.”

SCHSD officials said that while vaping in schools has become the number one reason why students are suspended, fighting between students continues to be a common one as well. But Sottile and Ferrie agreed that students do not deserve to suffer long-term consequences over the poor decisions they made when they were young. Ferrie said the ALC was a perfect way to transform suspensions from punitive to restorative. He added that district programs like the Cultural Proficiency Committee and Equity Task Force are also helping to address the issues of implicit bias in the schools.

Sottile said that while the ALC is still in its infancy, the data that was collected over the first semester showed that the district’s instructional days had increased, with suspended students no longer missing out on classes. The district plans to review a yearlong analysis of the ALC to find its strengths and weaknesses. Last year, the district found that the disparity between its students of color and white students dropped by 10 percent, and they hope the ALC will help continue that drop.

“We’re narrowing the suspension numbers, and hopefully, the number continues to decrease the recidivism and gets students to make better decisions,” Ferrie said.