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Alarmed by its high student suspension rate, Massachusetts revamped its school disciplinary regulations in 2012 to mandate that principals consider alternatives to out-of-school suspensions.

Specifically, the new law, which took effect in 2014, and is promulgated in regulation 603 CMR 53.05, states:

“In every case of student misconduct for which suspension may be imposed, a principal shall exercise discretion in deciding the consequence for the offense; consider ways to re-engage the student in learning; and avoid using long-term suspension from school as a consequence until alternatives have been tried.

“Alternatives may include the use of evidence-based strategies and programs such as mediation, conflict resolution, restorative justice, and positive interventions and supports.”

That is the law, and at the time it went into effect, according to a report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, students of color, students with disabilities, and low-income students were experiencing “a disproportionate share of disciplinary removals.”

In addition, according to the Lawyers’ report, the 2012-2013 school year data showed that “a mere 5 % percent of schools accounted for 42.7% all the suspensions, expulsions, and removals to alternative school in Massachusetts.”

Worcester, which at the time had an out-of-school suspension rate of 10.5 percent, was among that five percent of schools.

Last night, School Committee members were told in a presentation by Robert Curtin, the state’s associate commissioner of data and accountability, that the system’s overall suspension rate dropped to 6.5 percent this year. It was 8.5 percent in 2018.

 The two percent, one-year decline was pounced on as progress by the administration, but it was a mere .5 percent decrease from the system’s 7 percent suspension rate in 2015, which questions the sustainability of this current dip.

While also dipping this year, the system’s minority suspension rates are still excessively high.

The suspension rate of Latino students, who make up 42.9 percent of the school system’s enrollment, is currently 8.5 percent. It was 10.8 percent in 2018 and 9.6 percent in 2015.  

Of the 1,765 students suspended in 2019, 1002 were Hispanic.

The suspension rate for African Americans, who make up 16.3 percent of the enrollment, is 7 percent and the rate is 4.3 percent for whites, who make up 29.6 percent of the system enrollment.

More troubling, and perhaps should be examined for cause, is the high number of Worcester students being suspended for “non-violent, non-criminal, non-drug” incidents, Mr. Curtin suggested.

Of the 1,765 suspensions in 2019, 1,010 were for offenses ranging from dress code violations to acts of disrespect.

Worcester also has one of the highest rates of emergency removals in the state, Mr. Curtin said.

An emergency removal is a disciplinary practice that allows principals to suspend students for up to two days if the “continued presence of the student poses a danger to persons or property, or materially and substantially disrupts the order of the school.”

Ms. Binienda said she is looking for ways to further reduce the system’s suspension rate, but it will require more than the band aids–welcoming committees and welcoming initiatives–she is proposing.

Those solutions would make sense if indeed the problem was the diagnosis she gave last night

The high rate of suspension, she essentially said, was a result of changes in law, the awkward construction of the disciplinary categories, the time of year, the rigor of instruction and test anxiety.

“The months of the year that have the largest emergency removals are October and also May,” she explained.

October, she said, pose a suspension problem because it is the time of year when the review of what was “learned the year before” is over “and…more vigorous expectations are expected of kids.”

“Perhaps that is it,” she said.

“May is our testing month, especially for the high schools…don’t know if anxiety might be related to that, but that is our other highest month.”

Those explanations appear to suggest that Ms Binienda and some School Committee members still don’t get it.

This is not about the time of year, disciplinary categories and full moons.

This is about kicking kids out of school at the drop of a hat.

It is about violating students’ civil rights, as the report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice noted, pointing to a January, 2014, U.S. Departments of Justice and Education guidance on school discipline.

For example, selective enforcement of certain provisions of a school disciplinary code can…constitute discrimination, the report noted.

“At the outset, the Departments warn schools that they can be liable, not just for the actions of teachers and administrators, but also for the actions of school resource officers and other external agents should the schools delegate some disciplinary responsibility to them.”

Mayor Joe Petty appears to get it.

“We can’t ignore that,” he said last night of the high suspension rate.

“Especially the numbers in the Hispanic community. They are a growing population. They are going to be the future of Worcester, and we have to make sure that they feel they are part of the city.”

Only then, only when the administration and the school committee begin to see their destiny in all the young people attending our public schools will we likely see these high suspension rates fall dramatically and for good.

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