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Syracuse schools cut suspension incidents by half

Tom Magnarelli
Syracuse City School District Superintendent Sharon Contreras at a Syracuse Common Council hearing.

The Syracuse City School District is making strides to reduce the number of students suspended from school, after agreeing to make changes following an investigation from the state attorney general. Syracuse had previously been one of the top suspending school districts in the county.

In 2010, the national high school suspension rate was at 11 percent while Syracuse was at 30 percent. Since then, the district has managed to cut out-of-school suspension incidents by half, from 9,543 in 2012 to 4,434 in 2015. Syracuse Superintendent Sharon Contreras said students were being suspended for minor infractions. A new code of conduct was implemented that encourages discipline strategies outside of suspensions.

"We've done a lot around the technical work, due process, making sure students are not illegally suspended," Contreras said. "So I think we’ve made great strides, but certainly we still have discipline problems like any other urban school district, We’re consistently working to think about how we improve the culture and climate of our school system."

The district is in year two of a four-year legally binding agreement with the state attorney general’s office to overhaul discipline practices.

Studies show the more suspensions a student has, the greater the chance a student will drop out and not graduate. Syracuse was suspending every race of student higher than the national average back in 2010. Black students were recommended for expulsion hearings at twice the rate of white students. The suspension rate for Syracuse students with disabilities was 44 percent; more than twice the national average. Contreras said the district needs more child psychiatrists and psychologists to deal with severely disabled students.

“Here we have some, but certainly not enough to support the students and their families that need those types of services,” Contreras said. "We've been working closely with our delegation to advocate for more services for our students."

It costs the district about $10 million a year to comply with the state attorney general settlement. Moving forward, Contreras said the district will focus on more preventative strategies addressing students’ social and emotional needs.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.