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Children’s advocacy group calls for culture shift to combat ‘school-to-prison pipeline’

The Children’s Agenda is calling for an end to school suspensions for elementary students up to third grade.

The organization released findings this week from a poll of Monroe County parents who have students in grade school.

It shows that 84% of parents polled support eliminating suspensions in Pre-K through 3rd grade.

 “I think the schools play an important role in that school-to-prison pipeline,” said Larry Marx, CEO of the Children's Agenda. “We have to demonstrate in our practices and school culture nonviolent means of handling behavioral disruptions – and that has to go to eliminating exclusionary discipline, particularly for the littlest kids."

Transitioning to restorative practices for minor infractions could prevent interrupting learning for students with behavioral issues, who would otherwise be kept out of the classroom, Marx said.

“I think we're talking about really shifting culture and practices,” he said.

Integrating social-emotional supports into the school day would be an important step toward improving students’ well-being, he said, which could potentially ensure greater academic success.

The organization’s findings show that while the majority of parents polled see social-emotional supports as helpful, fewer are confident that schools will provide those supports.

Toyin Anderson, a parent with two kids in grade school and a board member of the Children’s Agenda, was among the parents polled. Her son goes to the school district and her daughter goes to Mercy.

Already this school year she said she sees a discrepancy in approaches between her daughter’s private school and her son’s public education – particularly when it comes to addressing mental health needs.

 “Just before school started, they [Mercy] literally asked if there's anything that happened traumatically for my child in the last few months, few weeks,” Anderson said. “Just anything that will require them to have support the minute she started school, and I never got the same thing for my son.”

Anderson wants to see more schools take proactive approaches to improving students’ well-being, and more policy makers take action to push for more equitable distribution of resources for students and families.

That has to be a top priority because it affects students’ capacity to learn, she said.

Noelle E. C. Evans is WXXI's Murrow Award-winning Education reporter/producer.