SOMSD superintendent: Data shows suspension moratorium is a good start

Superintendent Ronald Taylor presents a report on districtwide suspensions at a Board of Education meeting in May.

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Seven months after the South Orange–Maplewood Board of Education passed a resolution that placed a moratorium on most suspensions and school removals, Superintendent Ronald Taylor said in an update at the board’s May 16 meeting that the pause reduced the risk of suspensions across races, even though there are still disparities. The district had 36 suspensions during this school year, a decrease from 115 during the 2019-2020 school year. There were no suspensions during the 2020-2021 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic closures.

The district created a suspension task force, which included Taylor, Assistant Superintendent Matthew Friedman, Columbia High School Principal Frank Sanchez, Maplewood Middle School Principal Dara Gronau, South Orange Middle School Principal Lynn Irby, and student representatives Laila Gold and Carrie Saney. Assistant principals from CHS, MMS and SOMS and a restorative practices consultant were also on the task force.

“An important part of managing the moratorium on suspensions was creating a process for the review of student incidents,” Taylor said at the meeting, saying that restorative justice plans were made for each student by school leaders. “Each incident was reviewed by me personally.”

Though the number of suspensions has dramatically decreased overall since the moratorium went into effect, the risk for students of different races is not yet equal. In the last five years, the likelihood of a black student who is in trouble being suspended has gone down from 7 percent to 3 percent. Hispanic students have the same current ratio, though instead of a decreased likelihood theirs has increased from 1.2 percent in 2019-2020. BOE members Kaitlin Wittleder and Johanna Wright asked why, and Taylor said that data would be analyzed as part of the task force’s next steps.

“You can see that all the other designations are less than 1 (percent), which for this particular data is what is desirable for us,” Taylor said.

All schools in the district were included in the presentation, but the only ones with suspensions this year were Clinton Elementary School with one, CHS with 17, MMS with seven and SOMS with 11. All were decreases from the 2019-2020 school year.

“Our district’s suspension data reflects a trend of improvement regarding both the number of students suspended, the percentage of suspensions per overall enrollment, as well as demographic disparity,” Taylor said. “That doesn’t mean we’re satisfied with this work. While this trajectory was moving in an encouraging direction, our current data strongly suggests that the board’s moratorium had a direct impact on a greater reduction than would have been expected. Our school-based administrators’ feedback on their restorative practices has been very positive, both in the content and the presenters.”

Moving forward, Taylor said the district will create one central location for collecting data on suspensions; the task force had difficulty finding information about past years in one place and had to rely on both digital and physical records in several different locations. The moratorium will end when this school year ends.

“Despite the conclusion of the moratorium, we will continue the practice of requiring restorative connections, and they will be consistently reviewed by myself or a designee,” Taylor said.

BOE member Courtney Winkfield said in her comments at the meeting that it is easy to imagine dozens or hundreds of students having been suspended this year if not for the moratorium, which adds up to many hours of instructional hours they did not miss as a result.

“One of my bigger concerns in moving out of this formal moratorium phase is the fear that the rubber band theory will begin to take place and we’ll snap right back into the knee-jerk habits that got us into these high numbers in the first place,” Winkfield said. “I see a new baseline of data that the district is moving from, and I hope that our community will hold this district accountable for that new baseline and to monitor and keep those numbers as low as possible.”