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Parents question Syracuse schools task force about high suspension rates

As the State Attorney General investigates suspension rates in Syracuse city schools, parents got a chance to ask their own questions on Tuesday.
Syracuse (WSYR-TV) - As the State Attorney General investigates suspension rates in Syracuse city schools, parents got a chance to ask their own questions on Tuesday.

Parents lined up at the Southwest Community Center, which had reached out to Superintendent Sharon Contreras to request a community meeting about a month ago.

A task force with 40 members has spent months reviewing the district's code of conduct.

Among the finding shared with the crowd on Tuesday: 10,499 suspensions were handed out in the previous school year involving more than 25 percent of black students, which is double the rate of white students.

In the vast majority of cases, the reasons for out of school suspensions were classified as non-violent disruptions; minor problems that the superintendent believes are compounded by sending students home too often.

"They are less likely to perform well in school because they are not in the classroom and they are very likely to enter the juvenile justice system. We are trying to end that school to prison pipeline," said Syracuse City School District Superintendent Sharon Contreras.

The Syracuse Code of Conduct Task Force hopes to begin implementing changes this summer.

A summary of their draft recommendations include clarifying the proper steps to deal with behavioral issues with a three level chart.

Level one involves students who don't follow directions, don't bring proper materials to class, and don't comply with rules in class. Teachers would be told to redirect students, hold a quick conference during class, and monitor progress.

Level two deals with behaviors that disrupt safety, order, and learning including bullying or verbal and minor physical aggression. In those cases students may be assigned to a support coach, parents could be notified, and students might be removed from the classroom.

Level three identifies seriously aggressive and dangerous behaviors like possessing a firearm, using physical force, or selling illegal drugs. Students could be referred to community-based organizations, and Individualized Education Programs team (IEP), and counseling. Hearings could be set up with parents resulting in possible suspension or alternative education placement.

Another recommendation would establish a Behavior Intervention Center in every school to take in the students removed from classrooms. Then, Intervention Teams would be assigned to high needs students in order to oversee their progress.

"We have to figure out what is going to change this child's behavior. What can we do? What skills can we teach them where they will eventually change where they can sit in a classroom and they can learn," said High school teacher Shirelle Dowdell.

Teachers would also go through "professional development", including cultural competence training.

When asked about the racial makeup of the teaching staff, the superintendent said there are roughly 1,900 teachers in the district, "About 125 are of color," Contreras told the crowd on Tuesday.

According to a report by the New York State Attorney General's Office, about 25 percent of students in the district are white.

Asked how many teachers live in Syracuse, Contreras said the number is about 25 percent.

A roll-out of the task force changes is expected this summer.


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