By Erin Delmore
“We thought that the number of kids being suspended at the K-2 level was too big,” said Paterson Education Fund Executive Director Rosie Grant.
Almost 250 kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders were suspended last year in Paterson public schools. Five of the city’s elementary schools suspended more than 20 percent of their student bodies.
Grant’s Paterson Education Fund compiled the numbers off “school progress report cards” submitted to the state.
“And we took the cards one by one and pulled the suspension data,” she said.
Members of the Paterson school board said they don’t know if those numbers are accurate, but the underlying problem is all too clear.
“People seem to forget that we’re in an impoverished community. We don’t have the same type of environments for our students that the rest of the state has. So these kids come to school with a lot of complaints and maladies that you wouldn’t normally expect. They bring guns to school. They bring drugs to school. They bring knives to school. They also bring a lot of anger and acting out behavior … They present a danger sometimes to themselves, and potentially to their fellow classmates,” said Paterson school board member Jonathan Hodges.
Starting Nov. 1, there will be no more suspensions of kids in grades K-2. Paterson’s state-appointed superintendent has banned it. Last month, the state Legislature passed a law making it harder to suspend kids, allowing the punishment only in the most severe cases.
“We can put things in place, social and emotional supports, the district also did positive behavior in school, which is a model to help kids monitor themselves, their responses to situations. We need to give the kids support. Sending them home doesn’t help,” Grant said.
Support calls for more staff and that takes money the district doesn’t have. Paterson is among the poorest school districts in the state, marked by decades of under funding, per the state Supreme Court’s Abbott decision. It’s one of four school districts run by the state.
“We would love to have behavioralists and other specialists be brought to bear on this issue, but we face seven years of illegal under funding and now we just had a $45 million shortfall. So we’re struggling with materials, teachers, books, music and art. So these additional challenges present a problem for us. Because where do you go now for the necessary funding for these kids?” Hodges asked.
Paterson has 13 substance abuse counselors serving the whole district. That’s 54 schools. Hodges says adding more personnel means cutting nurses, security guards and teachers.
“You know, these kids are essentially the canaries in the coal mine, because what you’re seeing now are just the symptoms. You’re not seeing the underlying causes. And when you try to address the symptoms, because of the media, the press coverage, you don’t really have the time to focus down on what’s really causing this problem in the first place. You’re seeing behaviors we didn’t grow up seeing. And what really needs to be done is to focus some dollars on trying to correct the underlying problems that these kids are being exposed to. And we’re not spending that kind of money or time,” Hodges said.
The Paterson school superintendent declined our request for an interview. His office is looking into exactly what behavior prompted each suspension, how many kids were affected and what can be done about it going forward. His office says a committee is on track to release recommendations by the end of the month.