De Blasio Poised to Overhaul School Discipline

Emmanuel Felton, The New York World

As public advocate, mayor-elect called for interventions in place of suspensions

Whomever Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio names as his choice for schools chancellor, that appointee will likely preside over a shift in how the city deals with students who break school rules.

As New York City’s public advocate, de Blasio called for a top-to-bottom review of public school discipline policies that, he said, “too often result in excessive and discriminatory suspensions of students.”

The statement was part of a June 2013 letter that de Blasio and an education reform activist wrote to outgoing Chancellor Dennis Walcott. The city Department of Education, they said, ought to “expand the use of positive interventions and restorative justice practices, such as counseling, mediation, fairness committees, and restorative circles in lieu of suspensions, except when suspension is required by law.”

To make that possible, the letter elaborated, the city should give schools resources to provide counseling and mental health services to students who’ve committed minor infractions or have behavioral problems.

Advocates take the steps of City Hall before a council hearing on school suspensions of students. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio later joined a leader of one of the groups to call for dramatic reforms. Photo: Gotham Schools

Advocates take the steps of City Hall before a council hearing on school suspensions of students. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio later joined a leader of one of the groups to call for dramatic reforms. Photo: Gotham Schools

The letter was co-authored by Maria Fernandez of the Urban Youth Collaborative, a coalition of student-led organizing groups in Brooklyn and the Bronx that works to influence the Department of Education on the discipline code, school closures and college readiness.

De Blasio echoed that call in his campaign,vowing on his website to “empower principals by giving them the resources and tools to deal with student misbehavior”

Currently, New York City school principals have the option of seeking interventions like parent meetings or counseling for all but the most serious types of infractions. But hundreds of times each school day, school administrators instead choose to suspend students. 

In a system with 1.03 million studentsNew York City public schools logged 53,465 suspensions during the 2012-’13 school year. That’s down from 73,441 in 2010-’11, according tofigures obtained from DOE by the New York Civil Liberties Union, but still significantly higher than levels that prevailed during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s first term.

Principals and superintendents levied more than half of suspensions against black students, who make up 27 percent of the student population. And more than one-third of suspensions went to students receiving special education services, a group that represents just 12 percent of the student body.

Advocates who’ve been seeking to scale back use of suspensions in public schools say they expect the de Blasio administration to take action.

“We’re feeling really hopeful,” said Anna Bean, Campaign Coordinator at New York City-based Teachers Unite, one of several groups nationwide that organize under the banner the Dignity in Schools Campaign. “But we are not just sitting back.”

Among new measures that Bean’s group would like to see are training for all school staff, down to hall monitors, on positive methods of dealing with student misbehavior. They also want the Department of Education to require that principals use these methods before suspending students for all but the most serious offenses.

In addition, advocates want to revoke principals’ ability to suspend students for “defying or disobeying authority” — currently the lowest-level offense where suspension is allowed, and the second most common offense leading to suspensions, representing more than one-quarter of all incidents.

Principals “won’t do it just because it is recommended,” said Beam. “They will only do if they get the training and the resources needed to do it.”

Council of School Supervisors & Administrators union vice president Randi Herman has testified to the City Council that more guidance counselors would be needed for alternatives to school suspensions to be viable. “We don’t have enough,” she told the council’s education committee in April. “We don’t have enough social workers either. It is all a matter of dollars and cents; that is what it comes down to.”

The principals’ union has not taken a stand on de Blasio’s recommendations, and it did not return multiple requests for comment.

“We’ve met with them,” said Beam of the principals’ union. “We are still trying to figure out where they stand on this. They weren’t jumping up and down saying they will endorse our campaign.”

In contrast, the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing New York City teachers, told the council at the same hearing that suspensions “should be a last resort when all other strategies have been exhausted.” The union has called on DOE to find the resources for more guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists to deal with student behavior.

If de Blasio acts, New York would not be the first big city school district to drastically change its discipline policies in an effort to reduce suspensions. Starting with this school year, Los Angeles has banned suspensions for defying authority — offenses like “refusing to take off a hat” or “turn off a cellphone” — and required schools system-wide to use progressive interventions, like calling home, before suspension. Defying authority previously accounted for nearly half of the district’s suspensions.

Advocates in Los Angeles pointed to an early adopter of this strategy as proof of its potential. James A. Garfield High School is a large high school in East Los Angeles with a history of gang violence. The 2,500-student school once issued about 650 suspensions a year.

In 2009, the school began to require teachers go through a series of actions, like having a parent sit in the classroom, before they could send the student to the administration office. In turn, officials had to evaluate a range of available actions before they could opt to suspend students. As a result, suspensions declined to 150 in 2009. For each of the two years after that, the schools had just one suspension, both involving serious offenses where state law mandated suspension. In the meantime, student achievement scores have risen significantly.

Garfield used federal funds available to high-poverty schools to hire additional staff: a psychiatric social worker, an attendance counselor and more academic counselors.

In May, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s board voted 5 to 2 to require  all schools to adopt the Garfield High approach to student discipline. Opposed members voiced concerns that it would give students a “free pass” to misbehave, and some administrators worried that they would not be given enough time or support to implement the new alternatives.

Putting into place a system that emphasizes non-punitive interventions over suspensions requires training and staff assigned to the responsibility, said Daniel Losen, Director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project of the University of California at Los Angeles, who has advocated for reducing suspensions.

“We are not seeing enough resources committed to the alternatives,” said Losen. His organization is working on a study on the effects of similar changes to the discipline code in Denver, which took effect in 2008.

“Where we have empirical data, the studies show that not only do suspension rates come down, you also see achievement scores going up,” said Losen.

New York City advocates have argued that DOE already has the resources to hire counselors to avoid unnecessary suspensions.

“It doesn’t cost very much money. Just 1 percent of School Safety budget would fund all of this,” Beam said, referring to the $220 million spent last year to keep unarmed NYPD agents in city schools.

Even with limited support and resources from DOE, a handful of New York City school administrators have already elected to experiment with alternatives to suspensions. Among them is Ann Cook, cofounder of Urban Academy Laboratory High School and executive director of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, which represents 28 schools across the state that have taken a stand against high-stakes tests.

At Urban Academy, “We have a school focused on discussions, so here we get together and we talk it out,” said Cook. “Different schools are doing different things.”

Another is Humanities Prep in Manhattan, where a panel of students helps teachers adjudicate student behavior problems. Cook suggests that the answer to reducing the suspension rate will be different at every school.

“Sometimes it will mean retraining,” said Cook. “Sometimes just a change in policy at the top will do.”

At the Bronx International High School in Morrisania, after two kids get in a fight, instead of getting suspended they sit down with other students, who are trained peer mediators, to try to come to an agreement with one another. Jessica Morillo, a 16-year-old junior at Bronx International and an activist for reform, says the change has been noticeable.

“Let’s say we get into a fight,” said Morillo. “Before we had the mediation program at our school, we would have never talked and gotten to a real solution. We would have just got each other suspended. I would be angry and you would be angry.”