A few weeks after the de Blasio election I drifted down to the transition tent on Canal Street. The Transition Team was sponsoring a series of panels of community members and experts recommending directions for the newly elected administration. The education panel was chaired by an NAACP leader and the panel members included a well-known religious leader and other activists from the Harlem community. As the discussion moved from topic to topic one of the panelists bemoaned the “school to prison pipeline” and quoted a statistic: the staggering number of Afro-American males suspended from school in kindergarten. I was sitting next to a high ranking Department of Education official, I turned to him with a querulous look, he tapped into his hand-held device and shook his head, absolutely not; the assertion had no basis in reality. . It was accepted by the panelists and the audience. The suspension polices in schools are a pipeline to prison.
The same students who are suspended are the students who drop out of school and end up in prison; if we halted or sharply limited suspensions would we halt dropouts and incarcerations? Neighborhoods with high poverty risk load factors, neighborhoods with high crime rates include schools that are burdened with the pathologies of the neighborhood that surrounds the schools. We cannot single out schools as the “cause” of incarceration rates. As teachers we have the obligation to protect students from the mean streets and too keep the culture of the streets outside of school buildings.
We need rules and regulations to set a standard for behavior in schools.
New York City has a detailed discipline code, a list of infractions and punishments that are reviewed and revised every few years, The current code, called the City-Wide Behavioral Expectations to Support Student Learning (April 2015) is is a 32-page guide to student discipline. The behavioral infractions are grouped into five levels from Uncooperative/Non-Compliant Behavior up to the most serious level, Seriously Dangerous or Violent Behavior.
The Code emphasizes guidance interventions; “restorative approaches” and recommends a series of activities: collaborative negotiation, peer mediation and formal restorative conferences.
One of the most common, and controversial reasons for disciplinary actions are,
Defying or disobeying the lawful authority of school personnel in a way that substantially disrupts the educational process and/or poses a danger to a school community …
The intervention, depending on the severity and frequency of the infraction can be: admonishment, conferences, reprimand, parent conference, in-school disciplinary action, removal from classroom, principal suspension (1-5 days), superintendent’s suspension (30-90 days), superintendent’s suspension (one year) and expulsion (over 17 and extremely rare).
All actions can be appealed and students are entitled to legal representation at the superintendent level suspensions.
Every incident in a school must be entered into the Online Occurrence Reporting System (OORS) in detail, the reports are tracked and schools with persistent discipline issues develop Incident Reduction Plans that are closely monitored by the Department.
In spite of the detailed lists of infractions, in spite of the attempts to view responses to infractions as guidance before punishment the school to prison canard is alive and well.
The NYCLU website writes,
The School to Prison Pipeline is a nationwide system of local, state and federal education and public safety policies that pushes students out of school and into the criminal justice system …. 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.
Yes, schools in New York City are all staffed with School Safety Officers who monitor school entrances and work with school staffs to maintain order and discipline. And, yes, many high school schools require students to pass through metal detectors, referred to as scanning. Scanning is required at virtually every public building; every court, City Hall, State Offices buildings, in fact, photo IDs are required at most office buildings around the city.
Sadly schools can be dangerous places. Mayor David Dinkins was on his way to Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn for a community event when he received stunning news – a student had been shot to death by another student in the building. A few years earlier the Board of Education had designated twenty high schools for the placement of metal detectors. Carol Beck, the principal of Jefferson vigorously opposed the placement in her school. The students were being treated as criminals and stigmatizing communities of color; she was supported by a range of civil rights organizations around the city, the Board relented, and a child died. (Read NY Times article here).
Chalkbeat reports that the number of suspensions is down by 10% (as of 3-31-15), of course the department controls the number of suspensions, all suspensions at the superintendent level must be approved by the hierarchy. Whether restorative practices resulted in a decrease in suspendable offenses or whether the department simply is not approving requests to suspend we do not know, whether schools will become less safe under the de Blasio/Farina administration or whether schools were too quick to suspend is also an unknown.
I suspect the department has changed the administration of the rules to make it extremely difficult to suspend a student.
Some schools in similar neighborhoods have much higher suspension numbers than other schools and some schools with no or very low suspension rates are chaotic.
School tone is set by the school leader, and, unfortunately too many school leaders are leaders in name only. On a visit to a middle school the principal proudly told me, “We are committed to restorative justice, no one will ever be suspended in my school.” She may very well have been totally committed, the kids weren’t, they were floating around the building, the building was a mess. Conversely, in another middle school in a very tough neighborhood the first kid who saw me walked up, introduced himself, shook hands, and asked how he could help me.
One principal monitors Facebook pages and social media: did something happen in the projects that might spill over into the school?
I was sitting in on a principal council in a multi-school campus; the item on the agenda was school tone. The principals were finger pointing, why did “your kids” wander into my part of the building? Why were “your kids” picking fights with “my kids?” After a while I asked, “Why don’t you meet with the gang leaders?” A principal, aghast, asked “Why would I wanna do that?” Perhaps unkindly I responded, “Because they run the building.”
Leadership is way beyond applying Danielson Frameworks to classroom lessons. Leadership are kids respecting the school leader, leadership is establishing the tone that allows for teaching and learning in classrooms.
Years ago I worked with a superintendent, his favorite line, “Order precedes learning.”
How does a school leader convince kids to leave the culture of the streets at the school door? Do school leaders have the tools to discipline students for egregious acts?
To blame schools, to blame suspension policies for incarceration is foolish and harmful to all students. Just as in the larger world schools must have rules with a set of sanctions for violating the rules. Just as in the larger world the rules must make sense and be equitably applied.
Suspending kids as a surrogate for effective leadership is unacceptable as is failing to sanction kids for bad behavior.