The City of New Rochelle may be looking inward for explanations, solace and a path forward after a spate of violence involving New Rochelle High School students. But the community is also wrestling with challenges that school systems everywhere are facing when it comes to preventing, and reacting to, student misbehavior and violence.
Understandably, many of the dozens of parents and community members who spoke during a recent forum at the high school demanded to know what immediate steps would be taken to improve school safety, update obsolete school policies and improve communication. After three violent incidents over eight days, including the stabbing death of student Valaree Schwab at a Dunkin‘ Donuts, people wanted, and deserved, hard answers. ()
At the same time, many speakers went beyond short-term concerns about security. Several said that students involved in the violent incidents were known to be troubled. They asked what educators had done to help them, and they wondered what more could have been done. Community leaders pleaded with the school system to identify and support “at-risk” students going forward, even as they acknowledged that such initiatives would cost money and that schools alone cannot alleviate complex social problems.
Still others urged educators, and the community as a whole, to not make assumptions about black and brown students while in a rush to improve security and discipline. They pointed to worrisome signs on social media.
Over nearly four hours, dozens of speakers framed a conflict that is obsessing educators across the country: How do you support troubled students, instead of casting out those who pose a threat or have already crossed a line, while maintaining a safe and secure school for students who want to learn?
The Obama administration in order to reduce the high numbers of minority students being suspended from school. Many urban school systems began trying what‘s known as a “restorative justice” approach, which involves identifying troubled or at-risk students and helping them to control potentially disruptive impulses before something bad happens.
The Yonkers Public Schools, for instance, began working in 2014 to limit suspensions by training staff in new approaches to modify student behavior. The school system, aided by the Elmsford-based nonprofit Student Advocacy, also began rewriting its to de-emphasize suspensions, leaving the option open for specific infractions. ()
The Rochester City School District is taking a similar approach, with about half the city‘s schools offering what‘s called to students who are suffering the effects of poverty, homelessness and other socio-economic ills. Much of the work involves training staff to talk with and relate to kids who are hurting.
Although some schools adopting these approaches have been able to reduce suspensions, it will take some time to determine whether these schools are also able to maintain discipline. Many teachers unions are skeptical. on the Philadelphia school system‘s effort to reduce out-of-school suspensions found that policy changes produced no real impact because, in part, schools with the toughest behavioral challenges continued to suspend students.
In New Rochelle, many parents say they prize the diversity of the student body. The school district‘s 10,602 students in 2016-17 were 47 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white and 21 percent African-American, More than half of all students (52 percent) were classified as economically disadvantaged, meaning their families participated in economic-assistance programs, and 12 percent were identified as English language learners.
If the New Rochelle schools are going to try to identify and assist students who, for a variety of reasons, present behavioral challenges, the entire community will have to get behind the efforts. There are no easy solutions. Progress would require patience, a willingness to try different approaches, and acceptance that some approaches will fail and some students will not be helped, at least at first. Fortunately, New Rochelle‘s My Brother‘s Keeper program may be well-positioned to build support from the city‘s business and nonprofit communities. ( and an )
It‘s important to note that school systems everywhere are also dealing with rising mental-health challenges like student anxiety and depression. New Rochelle won‘t be immune. The reality is that modern-day schooling includes so much more than classroom instruction.
At the recent high-school forum, attended by about 1,000 people, Valaree Schwab‘s aunt and a family friend described in terrifying detail how she was pursued by a group of teenagers before being killed. They urged that Valaree‘s memory not fade, and that the community not repeat whatever mistakes may have contributed to her death. The challenge before New Rochelle — and so many other school communities — is how to be caring, smart and safe.