School to Prison Pipeline: Are Suspensions a Reflection of the School Neighborhood? Will Fewer Suspensions Lead to More Disruptive Schools? Will Better School Leadership and Classroom Instruction Lead to More Orderly Schools? Musing on the Complexities of School Climate

The “Talking Transition” tent popped up on Canal Street shortly after the de Blasio victory in November, 2013, panel after panel of organizations discussing what they wanted to see from the new administration. I wandered down to listen to a discussion of school discipline, mainly the “school to prison pipeline” and sat next to high ranking Department official. A panelist was spouting statistics about the rising number of suspensions in kindergarten classes, I looked to my “neighbor,” who was punching in numbers on his phone, and he whispered, “She’s wrong.”

The tidal wave is in full bloom, suspensions are both “racist” and the cause for high dropout rates, low graduation rates and lives of despair with the stain of prison lasting for a lifetime.

A May 29, 2013 New York Times editorial agrees,

… the creation of a repressive environment in which young people are suspended, expelled or even arrested over minor misbehaviors — like talking back or disrupting class — that would once have been handled by the principal.

The policies have not made schools safer. However, by criminalizing routine disciplinary problems, they have damaged the lives of many children by making them more likely to drop out and entangling them, sometimes permanently, in the criminal justice system. The policies are also discriminatory: black and Hispanic children are shipped off to court more frequently than white students who commit similar infractions.

The New York City Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) fact sheet parses the data on student suspensions, race, and prison populations.

A report in The Nation calls for the de Blasio administration to address what they see as a major impediment to school progress, the hellacious impact of student discipline run wild,

The Department of Education has announced a School Climate Reform Commission

Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña today announced a series of school climate and discipline reforms – developed in partnership with the NYPD and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice – that will ensure the safety and dignity of New York City’s students, and hasten the decline of crime in our schools. In addition to the coordination and collaboration across City agencies, the work of the City Council, other elected officials, and community stakeholders has been invaluable in this revision of the discipline code and continued movement towards progressive disciplinary approaches.

An op ed in the NY Daily News praises the commission as a good start, and urges the Department to move forward aggressively to find alternatives to the current discipline code.

Bob McManus in the NY Post is appalled,

… the administration’s enthusiastic embrace of public-education’s latest social-justice crusade — the dubious effort to retain dysfunctional, and sometimes dangerous, students in their classrooms at the expense of serious students.

Specifically, as Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced last week, there will be a sharp decrease in sanctions on disruptive students. It’s part of what one report terms an effort “to further rein in some of the most severe punishments while also keeping schools safe.

Will tougher scrutiny of suspensions, more effective training of school leaders and principals lead to the adoption of alternative procedures to discipline students,(i. e., restorative justice) higher graduation rates fewer dropouts, in other words, is reducing suspension the key to better outcomes for students of color?

Over the last two years suspensions have dropped sharply, the question is why?

Has the Department simply whispered to school leaders, “no,” we’re not going to approve suspensions; in fact, we’re going to “punish” you in your evaluation, your Principal Performance Review? On the hopeful side maybe school leaders and teachers are becoming more effective in dealing with disruptive students.

The guiding document is the Discipline Code (as amended September, 2013), the Code lists violations by the seriousness of the event and lists a range of escalating levels of “discipline” and guidance interventions; from a meeting with parents, a verbal reprimand, up the ladder to a principal suspense (1 to 5 days out of class and in school) to superintendent suspension (removal from school to an alternative learning site). Each “incident” must be entered in the Department OORS database and the database is tracked by the Department.

The sharp drops in school suspension are also mirrored in sharp drops in arrests of juveniles outside of schools. The NYS Juvenile Justice Task Force reports a decline in juvenile arrests in NYC of 39% since 2011. Of juveniles arrested in NYC 62% are Black, 36% Hispanic and 2% White. On the borough level in 2011, 2012 and 2013 arrests dropped in each year.

Bronx 2011: 3748, 2012: 2599, 2013: 2071
Manhattan: 2011: 1935, 2012: 1625, 2013: 1310
Kings: 2011: 3628, 2012: 3065, 2013: 2346
(See a wealth of data on the Task Force site).

The overall reductions in crime in NYC appear to be across the board, from murders to other crimes as well as juvenile arrests and school suspensions.

I strongly suspect that if we disaggregate the juvenile crime data by school district we would find a strong correlation between juvenile arrests and school suspensions; in other words schools reflect their communities.

In my experience the school leader not only guides the instructional program in the school, the school leader establishes a culture, a culture that includes teachers and students.

I was sitting at a campus council, the six principals in the school were meeting and discussing a range of issues, a major and intractable issue, “threats” and “intimidation,” a principal was complaining about the influence of the gangs. I suggested, “Why don’t you meet with the gang kids?” The principal snapped back, “Why would I want to do that?” Unkindly, I replied, “Because they run your building.”

In another school the principal told me he checks in with the gang kids every morning, “Anything going on that I should know about …?”

A principal proudly told me, she was totally committed to restorative justice, unfortunately the kids weren’t, and the school was chaotic.

Hopefully the City and the Department will allow data, and not political preconceptions, determine future policy decisions.


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