The Public Housing Project to Prison Pipeline (with a stop at school): Musing on School Suspensions

A few weeks after the election of Bill De Blasio as mayor I trekked to the transition tent to listen to a panel to explore and recommend policies to the mayor-elect. The panel: NAACP, the Urban League, a pastor and Harlem-based community organizations all pointed to the “school to prison” pipeline and urged the mayor to intervene. Schools were suspending far higher percentages of black male students; .the result is frequent, targeted suspensions and students who are the subject of frequent suspensions are far more likely not to graduate and to end up in the criminal justice system.

The assumption: if the school system reduces suspensions of black male students these actions will also reduce entry into the criminal justice system and increase graduation rates.

School discipline polices in New York City are governed by the Citywide Standards of Intervention and Discipline Measures (April, 2015), formerly known as the Discipline Code. Read here.

All suspensions in New York City are served in a school setting, a principal level suspension (one to five days) in the school building and a superintendent level suspension at the suspension center, a special facility that provides education and guidance during the period of suspension. The numbers of suspensions has dramatically declined over the last two years of the de Blasio/Farina administration.

In the Success Academy charter schools suspensions are part of the school instructional program, minor infractions are subject to suspensions and frequent suspensions lead to “counseling out.” Around the country schools districts have adopted zero tolerance policies; misbehavior of any sort equals a period of suspension.

The American Psychological Association doubts the efficacy and the effectiveness of zero tolerance (Read APA report here)

… despite a 20-year history of implementation, there are surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions of a zero tolerance approach to school discipline, and the data that are available tend to contradict those assumptions. Moreover, zero tolerance policies may negatively affect the relationship of education with juvenile justice and appear to conflict to some degree with current best knowledge concerning adolescent development.

If zero tolerance leading to frequent suspensions are not effective why do schools defend the policy? An Atlantic article reports, “Administrators don’t suspend kids because they love kicking kids out of school … It happens because they don’t know what else to do.” School systems, which control the frequency of suspensions are moving toward, as Atlantic explains, “… restorative practices, a term used to describe talk-it-out behavior interventions. In these interventions, students involved in disputes or infractions participate in developing their resolutions, which include peer mediation, restorative circles, and group conferences.”

Calls for the end of zero tolerance have reached the White House as President Obama calls for the end of the policy.

“Restorative practices” operate within school buildings, unfortunately suspendable offences commonly begin outside of schools. School are not surrounded by moats, they are parts of a larger community.

A member of the NYS Juvenile Justice Task Force tells me that juvenile arrests are highly concentrated in a few communities in New York City (for example: East New York and Brownsville in Brooklyn) and the highest juvenile arrest catchments are also neighborhoods with concentrations of public housing. (NYCHA)

A 2011 NYU Furman Center report, “Public Housing and Public Schools: How Do Students Living in NYC Public Housing Fare in School?” explores the academic achievement of students living in public housing

Half of the elementary school-aged students in public housing attend just 10% of the City’s elementary schools, or 83 schools. This pattern of concentration holds at the high school level as well.

The percentage of students passing standardized math and reading exams at the average school attended by NYCHA students is notably lower than those at the average school attended by non-NYCHA students … we see persistent disparities between the academic performance of students that live in NYCHA housing and other students.

While the NYU report speculates on a wide range of reasons that may be the underlying cause of lower achievement of students living in public housing the report fails to explore the levels of crime in public housing.

An April, 2014 investigative report in the New York Daily News.

New York City Housing Authority’s 334 projects saw a 31% spike in major crime to an eight-year high, while the rest of the city experienced a 3.3% increase, the records show.

For the last twenty years, the tenure of Giuliani and Bloomberg, public housing has been abandoned; the city allowed the buildings to decay: dysfunctional elevators, leaky roofs, electrical and plumbing problems, heating plants that fail; buildings that house 400,000 New Yorkers. The Bloomberg administration pumped billions into infrastructure improvements, primarily in Manhattan, and ignored the residences of our poorest citizen.

It is not surprising that public housing; rife with crime is also infested with a gang culture. Kids grow up in a gang culture. A gang expert was asked: How do the gangs affect the neighborhoods, schools and other institutions where they’re active?

Gangs provide protection, belonging, and respect. They have replaced the traditional family. They obviously rule on intimidation and fear. Kids today believe in power by numbers and have two choices: join the power group or form a group to go against the power group. As far as the neighborhoods, usually gang-related graffiti increase and property values decrease. Poverty plays a major role in the formation of gangs and neighborhoods reflect the poverty… neglected homes, shuttered buildings, etc. Schools become more violent, metal detectors become the norm, increased security and after school issues (fights, etc.) ripple back to the community.

Gang cultures and school cultures are in conflict and kids have to learn to live in a bi-cultural world. One set of rules in the street, another set of rules in a school building. Unfortunately for some kids school is place for breakfast and lunch, a place to meet up with a crew, the education side is irrelevant; disputes in the hallways of the project spills over into the hallways of the school building.

Will reducing or eliminating suspensions end the so-called “school to prison pipeline or make school less safe? Do “restorative practices” work with students in high crime, gang impacted public housing projects?

I was sitting in on a principal council meeting in a school building with multiple schools. The conversation repeated itself at each meeting; kids were cutting classes and wandering into other schools in the building. After a period of finger pointing I offered, “Why don’t you speak with the gang kids?” A principal responded, “Why would we want to do that?” Perhaps unkindly I snapped, “Because they run your building.” Another principal chimed in “We want to get rid of the gang kids not coddle them.”

The poorest inner city neighborhoods, in New York City that includes the public housing projects, are far more similar to Afghanistan than the tony streets of Manhattan or Brownstone Brooklyn. You can’t suspend or arrest your way to the elimination of a gang culture, you have to eliminate the underlying causes, causes steeped in poverty and racism.

A year ago in a school nearby the school referenced above, at 10 in the morning there were six “pops,” a body was lying in the street outside the building, a car had driven up, the victim was assassinated. The police, the superintendent, the higher-ups descended on the school. A crisis management team arrived and offered to interview every kid to deal with trauma. The principal suggested working with the staff. For the kids violent death was not out of the ordinary – every kid knew someone, a friend, a neighbor, a relative, a sibling, who had died a violent death.

That same school had kids from the same projects, no suspensions, no kids wandering in the halls. The difference: school leadership. The principal of one school engaged the gang kids, in another the principals attempted to drive out the gang kids.

As long as we abandon entire neighborhoods, allow public housing projects to fester, homelessness to thrive, gang cultures have rich soils in which to grow.

Suspensions are a sign, an image of another culture. School leaders and teachers can create school cultures in which kids learn to both abide by the mores of schools and live in their own neighborhoods, the mean streets of the inner cities.

Eliminating suspensions and metal detectors will not end the so-called school to prison pipeline; they may very well make schools less safe for students and staff.

We need the people, the teachers, the politicians, who have the will and the ability to change worlds.

A complex world, maybe too complex.

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4 responses to “The Public Housing Project to Prison Pipeline (with a stop at school): Musing on School Suspensions

  1. Restorative measure as behavior modifiers, should not be viewed as a universal antiseptic for ill behaved and often time incorrigible school youth. It is not the answer, and fro any of us to believe that it is, think back to Officer Holder’s murder, at the hands of someone who was a career incorrigible criminal and whom a judge placed into a restorative behavioral modification program. The Fed/State and City governments need to allocate whatever funding may be necessary to police projects. If you are a city with 12, 20, 30 etc housing projects, then each must have a highly visible HOUSING AUTHORITY Police Station on those projects premises, with an equally highly visible policing force assigned. As opposed to Housing Authority police who commute to work, and then leave in favor of those relieving them. Ask any station house cop about rentals in proximity to that station house. Thats right, they are higher, because renters are willing to pay for ther safety. Put a Station house for Housing Authority police in every project, you will promote high profile, quick or rapid responses, crime prevention and a totsl swing of the pendulum in terms of the axiom that says from the Projects to the schools to the prisons. Incorrigibles will leave of their own volition, and find a city where they can more readily ply their trade.

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  2. Like you said, suspensions are just a sign—they are not the cause. Too bad so many in the U.S. are too ignorant and deaf, dumb and blind to see that.

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  3. K.K is right on the ball in his analysis of the suspension problem. Until society puts a stop to the gang issue and ignore family problems that lead to the bad behavior, restorative justice is not the answer.

    In fact, my experience with the restorative justice policy at my school has shown it to be a failure and the badly behaved students just laugh at the lack of any real consequences.

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