Are Reducing Suspension Rates and Safe Schools Antithetical? Finding a Balance Between Safety, Respect and Trust in a Turbulent World

In the week after the mayoral election the incoming de Blasio administration set up a transition tent on Canal Street and posted the events of the day, panels and workshops on a wide range of topics. I showed up for the education panel – the NAACP, ACLU, a minister (now running for Congress) from a Harlem church and a few others discussing an assortment of school issues. The panelists were outraged by the number and severity of school suspensions.

The 32-page NYC School Discipline Code (revised 2013) has been scrutinized and revised every few years, the Code describes unacceptable conduct in detail and lists the levels of discipline. Unacceptable conduct begins with “uncooperative behavior” and moves up the ladder to “disorderly” to “disruptive” to “aggressive or injurious” to “seriously dangerous or violent.” The Code recommends “restorative approaches” with children and at each step there is an appeal avenue. Suspensions range from a few days in school to movement to an off-site suspension center and in rare cases to expulsion.

All “incidents” must be entered into the Online Reporting Student Suspension (ORSS) system with substantial backup information. The data is monitored by the superintendent as well as the borough safety team.

I spoke with an experienced department administrator:

1. The suspensions are actually shorter in duration; the time the student is out of the school prior to the hearing is counted as time served.
2. Arrests require an infraction – not the whim of a department employee.
3. Most suspensions take place because the parent doesn’t respond when called or show up for the hearing. Too often the parental response is “I have no control over my child” – the only option is a suspension.

In 2011 the NYC chapter of the ACLU issued a report sharply critical of suspension policies under the Bloomberg administration,

Interrupted: The Growing Use of Suspension in New York City Schools, a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union demonstrating a drastic spike in student suspensions under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s watch. The report, based on an analysis of a decade of previously undisclosed suspension data, finds that New York City schools suspend nearly twice as many students as they did a decade ago and the lengths of suspensions are becoming longer — a trend that disproportionately affects black students and students with special needs.

The overuse of suspensions denies children their right to a public education. It’s pushing students from the classroom into the criminal justice system. A study of secondary school students, published in the Journal of School Psychology, showed that students who were suspended were 26 percent more likely to be involved with the legal system than their peers.

The ACLU and other civil rights organizations call suspension policies a “school to prison pipeline,”

The School to Prison Pipeline operates directly and indirectly. Schools directly send students into the pipeline through zero tolerance policies that involve the police in minor incidents and often lead to arrests, juvenile detention referrals, and even criminal charges and incarceration. Schools indirectly push students towards the criminal justice system by excluding them from school through suspension, expulsion, discouragement and high stakes testing requirements.

School discipline-suspension policies are high on the de Blasio-Farina agenda. Chancellor Farina, in her 100-Day speech referenced student suspensions,

A school culture in which students feel safe, valued, and respected is critical to our success. That includes rethinking how we respond to student misconduct. An over-reliance on suspension is not the answer. I have worked to change the tone towards our schools, and now I will try to improve the tone within them.

I believe that we need more supportive approaches to student discipline, and we’re developing them; for example, by helping schools embrace and deepen their work around social emotional learning, and building a positive school culture and climate. By embedding the social emotional competencies into the curriculum. And by engaging the whole community in solutions.

I have been inspired by the work of one particular network that is focusing on studying ways to “suspend suspensions,” and has brought some great minds to the table around this topic.

Schools are parts of communities and the pathologies of the communities impact the schools. When kids cross the threshold of the school building they do not leave their home and street experiences behind..

Carol Beck was the highly regarded principal of Thomas Jefferson High School in East New York, a school plagued by violence located in the police precinct with one of the highest homicide – hand gun violence rates in the city. When the board designated 21 schools for metal detectors for the 91-92 school year Principal Beck angrily and vehemently argued against the placement in her school – her kids were not criminals and should not be treated as criminals. The day of a visit to the school by the new Mayor, David Dinkins,

Two teen-agers were shot to death at point-blank range in the hallway of a Brooklyn high school yesterday morning, little more than an hour before Mayor David N. Dinkins was to visit the troubled school to tell students they had the power to break free of the world of violence and drugs.

“You have got to learn from this,” Mr. Dinkins, his voice tense, implored several hundred students who were packed into the two-tiered auditorium when he arrived to speak about 70 minutes after the 8:40 A.M. shooting. “You must learn from this. So please help me. Help your principal. Help yourselves.” The youths sat shaken, many holding their heads down in their hands.

The killings came just three months after another student was cut down by gunfire and a teacher critically wounded in the same East New York high school, a brick structure whose immaculate pink halls contrast with the near-desolate landscape of project housing and empty, litter-strewn lots

Since then, students have been screened with metal detectors about once a week in spot security checks intended to weed out the hidden knives and guns that the youths say they carry to protect themselves from street violence — and now violence in the school. Their grim neighborhood, which they described as a terrifying turf of night gun fire and drug deals, had the second-highest homicide rate in the city in 1990.

There were no metal detectors in use yesterday, despite the Mayor’s impending arrival. The detectors were to have been used Tuesday, the original date for the Mayor’s appearance. But the principal, Carol A. Burt-Beck, had asked that the security check be postponed because it would set the wrong mood, school officials said.

Standing up for her kids, not allowing metal detectors stigmatize her kids led to the death of three of her students.

Almost twenty-five years later in the same police precinct homicide – handgun violence rates lead the city.

Our first obligation is to keep kids safe and to create an environment that fosters learning, an environment that is frequently at variance with the environment in the streets surrounding the school.

I was meeting with a group of principals in a co-located building and the conversation turned to kids wandering the halls and fights. For a few of the principals the answer was to suspend more kids, I asked,

“Do you talk to the gang leaders?”

One of the principals, hostilely, “Why would I do that?”

I blurted, “Because they run the building.”

Gangs are a reality, when I hear a principal say s/he’s going to rid the building of gangs I figure they’ll be as successful as we were in ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban. Kids belong to gangs, their older siblings belong to gangs and their parents belonged to gangs.

A principal in school in the same neighborhood tells me, “I chat with my gang kids every day, glean the gossip, what’s going on, they tell me what happened outside of school and I know which kids to approach at the beginning of the day, and when to alert the precinct. My kids know there is no excuse for misbehaving in school and bad conduct has consequences.”

An arm over a kid’s shoulder, a stern look, a harsh reprimand, a phone call home, and, sometimes, a suspension, or, a call to the precinct, some principals have the skill to use the right intervention for each situation, and, others, don’t, and, may never have the skills.

As I entered a middle school the first thing I noticed was the number of kids wandering the halls, never a good sign. The principal, who had gone through a Restorative Justice training program, stopped two kids who were especially boisterous, engaged them in a lengthy conversation, she asked why they were in the halls, how they were feeling, suggested they speak with the counselor, and sent them on the way. I noticed a school aide standing in the hall. I asked her whether this the principal’s approach worked, she scoffed, “The kids eat her up alive.”

Grades on standardized tests determine student, teacher, principal and school success or failure. It was not surprising that the ATR pool was stuffed with over 200 guidance counselors; inexperienced principals used dollars for extended school days or Saturday tutoring programs ignoring the socio-emotional needs of kids. Schools are complex cultures, raging hormones in middle schools, proto-adults in high schools and elementary school kids often too hungry to do schoolwork or shuffled from house to house or simply plopped in front of a TV screen for hours every day or cared for by a sibling only a few years older.

Streets are dangerous places, the wrong comment, the wrong glance, the wrong “he said, she said,” can easily lead to retribution – your protection – your gang brothers and sisters.

It would be wonderful for a school to have psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors and nurses to work with kids and families, it would be wonderful to have principals who set and enforce rules across an entire school. Reducing suspensions is meaningless without other means of creating a culture of order and discipline. Kids are really, really smart, they have been manipulating the system for years: the cop, the social worker, the guidance counselor and the teacher. Some schools, some school leaders have the skills to change the game – to begin to turn kids’ lives around; unfortunately too few school leaders have the skills.

I worry that in the name of progress we will reduce suspensions, reduce the use of scanning and revisit the death of students at Thomas Jefferson.

The road to you know where is paved with good intentions.

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2 responses to “Are Reducing Suspension Rates and Safe Schools Antithetical? Finding a Balance Between Safety, Respect and Trust in a Turbulent World

  1. grear points.I am in your corner

    Like

  2. The quandary is this; do you allow every student to behave as he pleases, minimally constrained, until he develops an internal self-regulating mechanism that puts him closer into society’s mainstream, or do you run an educational setting for the many, setting an example for them by the observation of the consequences of misbehavior upon the few?

    When I was a relatively new teacher, a student in my class created an incident that led to him being discharged as ‘over 17’. It was ugly. This kid had disrupted education in classes for two and a half years, but this was his final time.

    I ran into him about five years later on a street corner near a pool hall and a superette. He approached me and said to my amazed face that I had done the right thing by pushing his punishment, that he was heading (he realized now) down a dark path, and that his life was now improving. He told of becoming an assistant manager at the market, with a promotion coming. He told of getting a GED, and thinking of some Community College classes. He ended by apologizing to me for not seeking me out to say this before, and asking how the school was doing.

    What do we teach when we accept unacceptable behavior? What lessons do the misbehaving students learn? What lessons do the other kids learn?

    Like

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