Amherst superintendent favors near-elimination of suspensions as schools continue to address racial disparity

Saturday, December 14, 2013
AMHERST — Superintendent Maria Geryk told the Amherst-Pelham regional school committee Tuesday that she hopes to nearly eliminate students’ suspension as a punishment in favor of more effective methods of classroom control.

The change would help address disproportionate discipline rates between white students and students of color. According to a report presented to the regional school committee, more students of color are suspended than white students in middle schools and high schools both in Amherst and statewide. The report showed the percentages for the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years, and the current school year through Dec. 1.

At Amherst Regional High School, 65 percent of out-of-school suspensions during the 2011-2012 school year were given to of students of color. That declined to 58 percent in 2012-2013, according to the report presented by Michael Morris, director of evaluation and assessment for the Amherst public schools.

Ideally, Morris said, the proportion of students of color who are suspended would be the same as white students.

Geryk said that other than offenses such as assault and weapon possession, she would like to eventually stop using suspension as a method for discipline.

Faye Brady, director of student services and special education for the district, suggested that staff should be trained to try to understand the causes of students behavior, such as that may arise from personal problems or cultural differences.

“As long as we’re sending children out of class and out of school, we’re not doing our job to educate them,” Brady said. “We can’t change students. We need to give people the skills ... so they can say, ‘I need help,’ instead of, ‘I need to get these students out of the classroom.’ ”

Morris and Brady described how the Amherst schools can use their relationship with Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports to address the disproportional discipline rates. That is a program that has been used in the school system for three years to promote learning through addressing student behavior.

“I would love to see all of us, when we come in contact with students during the day, be more student-focused,” Geryk said. “I think it’s going to take us a little bit of time to get there.”

Rick Hood, of Amherst, the vice chairman of the School Committee, pointed out that every speaker who addressed the board Tuesday was white.

“I think it would be bad for those of us who are white not to recognize that when we see it,” Hood said.

Also during the public comment period Tuesday night, there was mixed response by parents and other residents to the restrictions placed on nut products in the schools.

Ray La Raja, an associate professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, said he has not seen evidence that a total ban on nut products reduces threats to allergic students, because it is difficult to enforce. He suggested that one possible solution would be instead to have EpiPens available throughout the schools and to heavily encourage students to wash their hands. He said he had to stop one of his children from bringing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to school.

“It concerns me many students are ignoring these policies,” he said.