Suspension rates in the Charlottesville City Schools have dropped by more than half in the past seven years.

The Charlottesville and Albemarle County school divisions are progressing in an ongoing effort to cut rates of out-of-school suspensions while ensuring the safety of their schools.

School administrators say they are shifting toward using preventive measures for misbehavior like bullying prevention programs, mental health support and teacher training in lieu of out-of-school suspensions.

“The bottom line is that when students are not in school, they are not learning,” said Jim Henderson, associate superintendent of Charlottesville City Schools. “We have focused on finding alternatives to out-of-school suspensions that keep kids in school, where they can get appropriate support.”

The effort began with the Safe Schools Healthy Students initiative, a federal grant the divisions administered between 2009 and 2014 aimed at improving school climate.

Suspension rates have dropped significantly in the Charlottesville schools in recent years.

During the 2008-2009 school year, Charlottesville schools issued more than 1,000 out-of-school suspensions. By the conclusion of the 2013-2014 school year, that number had dipped to fewer than 300 suspensions.

In Albemarle, where the rate of suspensions is much lower than the city, the trends are less pronounced, with out-of-school suspensions dropping in some high schools but rising in some middle schools.

Suspensions at Albemarle’s three comprehensive high schools during the 2013-2014 school year ranged from a low of 22 at Western Albemarle to a of 127 at Albemarle.

Reorganization of staff in Albemarle schools has resulted in the creation of a student services position, to be filled by former Stone-Robinson Elementary principal Nicholas King in the coming school year. Administrators say this will allow the division to focus more intensely on alternative behavioral management strategies.

“There has been a paradigm shift in recognizing that suspension is often not a logical consequence for misbehavior,” said Matt Haas, assistant superintendent of the Albemarle schools. “When students are disruptive it is a problem, but we have to get to the root of that problem rather than expect things to magically get better after the student can’t come to school for three days.”

To address the issue, both divisions have worked closely with Dewey Cornell, a professor at the Curry School of Education who also directs the University of Virginia’s Virginia Youth Violence Project.

“There is a national movement against the overuse of school suspension,” Cornell said. “Studies have consistently found that school suspension does not improve student behavior or make schools safer.”

“Suspensions often cause students to fall behind in their studies, become alienated and engage in further misbehavior,” he added.

The federal grant provided the school systems with $6 million over a five-year period. Administrators from both school divisions stressed the importance of professional development programs that arm teachers with alternative strategies to manage classroom disruptions.

“We have wonderful teachers and very strong administrators, but they work with the tools they know that they have,” Haas said. “If writing disciplinary referrals is my tool for dealing with student disruption, then that is what I am going to do.”

As the divisions reevaluate the role suspensions play in maintaining safe schools, they have adjusted codes of conduct accordingly, revisiting policies that automatically assign suspension to certain minor behavioral infractions.

Administrators have also made use of a threat assessment tool developed by Cornell and his colleagues to determine whether a student poses a significant enough risk to school safety to merit suspension.

“We take a problem-solving approach to student misbehavior rather than a strictly punitive, zero tolerance approach,” Cornell said.

Cornell says that his threat assessment model, which was originally piloted in the local schools and has since been implemented across the United States, has also helped reduce racial disparities in the administration of student discipline.

“Schools in Virginia, and across the U.S., generally suspend black students at two to three times the rate of white students, even though the suspensions are mostly for minor offenses,” Cornell said.

Having completed a study of Virginia schools last year, Cornell and his colleagues found that “schools using threat assessment do not suspend minority students at a higher rate than white students.”

Coupled with the focus on staff’s approaches to behavioral management, the school divisions also used the federal grant funds to provide mental health counselors and personnel from the Region Ten Community Services Board.

“The program helps provide attention to the needs of the children in a preventative way even before they come onto the radar for suspension or expulsion,” said Lori Wood, who supervises the Region Ten positions in the schools.

After the grant expired last year, Charlottesville schools maintained a mental health counselor at Charlottesville High School. Albemarle schools lost the grant-funded counselor positions, but administrators say they hope to bring them back.

Although the schools continue to seek the funds necessary to sustain the grant’s programming, personnel from both divisions say that the shift in attitudes around student discipline is here to stay, and further drops in suspension rates are to be expected.

“Our original goal was to get suspensions down to 600,” Henderson said. “We have far surpassed that, but even one suspension is too many.”