Camden schools tout significant decreases in suspensions

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

As the NJTV News walked with Nancy Garcia to her home in Camden, she spoke about her sixth grade son, Giovanni.

“His mouth leads him to issues such as starting fights, or someone starts the fight and he doesn’t know when to walk away, when to stop,” she said.

Two years ago, she says her son got suspended from school about five times.

But last year, it went down dramatically, and she says that’s because everybody in the building encourages him and at the same time keeps her informed.

“Just get to know the students on a one-on-one basis, understand a lot of their problems and frustrations they’re having may not be in school, they come from outside communities, so you have to be able to talk to that student,” said Dean of Students David McGhee.

It’s all part of a policy change in Camden Schools where teachers are now all trained to support the kids by finding out what’s going on instead of jumping to punishment.

And to deal with disciplinary actions are deans of students, like McGhee, were added to Camden Schools. He’s someone students and teachers can turn to.

“About three years ago, I was driving through Camden and I was in front of the Walter Rand Transportation Center. If you know Walter Rand, it’s a massive communication, transportation hub. Frankly, it’s a bit of a heroin corridor in the city and it’s widely known to be. And I saw this student walking around 11 o’clock on a school day and I pulled my car over and I’m like, ‘Hey what’s going on what are you doing?’ He told me that he had a panic attack the day before at school and he walked out of the building. He shouldn’t have done that and he was given a 10-day suspension. That shouldn’t have happened either,” said Camden Schools Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard.

Rouhanifard said that’s when he knew something needed to change. A big part of the new strategy is having suspensions in the building.

“There are still consequences. So if a student breaks rules, significantly, egregious violations, like bringing a weapon to school, certainly there will be out of school suspension for that. But at the end of the day, a student acting out or saying something in class he/she shouldn’t have, our initial response shouldn’t be, ‘You know what, go home, be out of school for five days’ because that’s the last thing we should want for our kids — to put them in an unsupervised environment,” he said.

“I like to call it life skills lessons, so we go over time management, effective communication, anger management just all kind of things they’re going to face,” said McGhee.

And the number of days missed because of suspensions ultimately decreased by 72 percent. The superintendent says that’s over 6,000 extra days in the classroom compared to prior years.

“The most important thing is their education, that they’re staying on track for graduation and we can help them do that better in the building than we can outside of the building,” said McGhee.

Garcia says going to the root of the problem is something she makes sure to do with her son.

“The way I see it he is my future. He’s worth it for him to be a statistic now,” she said.

“That was my old classroom right there,” Giovanni said pointing to a room as he expressed his big goals. “I’ll go to high school, then college, then I’m going to be a movie star.”

So, what will he do with his movie star fame? Giovanni said he’d give the teachers a vacation including someone very special: his mother.