Suspensions, the School to Prison Pipeline, de Blasio and the 2017 Mayoral Election: “All Politics is Local.”

A few weeks after de Blasio won the election in November, 2013 I wandered over to the transition tent on Canal Street; the de Blasio transition team was sponsoring a series of panels. Experts and the “community” was expressing opinions and asking for public input: infrastructure, policing, sanitation and education. The education panel was made up of a leader of the Harlem NAACP, pastors from a few churches and community activists. One of the speakers decried the large numbers of black children suspended in pre-kindergarten. I was sitting next to a high-ranking Department of Education official, I looked over at him, he shrugged and began tapping into his phone – he shook his head – the assertion was totally wrong; however, it didn’t matter.  The panelists “knew,” beyond a doubt, that school was the pipeline to prison and that there was a direct link between suspensions of Afro-American males, high school drop-outs, and prison,

Read an ACLU Report here.

Read Tavis Smiley article here.

As we inch toward the September, 2017 Democratic mayoral primary and the November general election the potential candidates are maneuvering, de Blasio’s approval ratings are in the tank and he is appealing to his base constituency, the Afro-American community.

The suspension rules are explicitly spelled in Department regulations.

New York City has a detailed discipline code; a code that was revised last year limited student behaviors that were subject to suspensions.

New York City School Discipline Code: http://schools.nyc.gov/NR/rdonlyres/CD69C859-524C-43E1-AF25-C49543974BBF/0/DiscCodebookletApril2015FINAL.pdf

 As a result of the changes, and mostly because of pressures from the top, suspension rates have dropped sharply. The New York Daily News reports,

Starting in 2015, city Education Department officials made it more difficult for principals to suspend students as part of a larger effort to improve school climate.

As a result of the changes, city schools boss Carmen Fariña reported in March that suspensions fell 31.7 % from July to December 2015 compared to the same period in 2014.

The push came at least in part from de Blasio, who had criticized suspension policies as discriminatory toward black and Hispanic kids since his days as Public Advocate.

A few weeks ago the Department announced that suspensions in grades K – 2 would be bared completely.

Teacher union president Michael Mulgrew, in an op ed in the New York Daily News was critical,

In a perfect world, no child under the age of 8 would ever be suspended. Every student having a discipline crisis would have the proper interventions. Every classroom would be a positive learning environment.

Unfortunately, children in crisis who are disrupting classrooms are not going to be helped by the latest plan by the city’s Department of Education to ban suspensions outright in grades K-2, and neither will the thousands of other children who will lose instruction as a result of those disruptions.

Mulgrew was reflecting the views of his members as well as the principals across the system. I called a principal acquaintance,

“Yes, I plead guilty, I suspended kids in grades K – 2, and I doubt it resolved anything except it gave the teacher a respite from dealing with a few kids who are out of control. I wish I had a behavior specialist, a psychologist on staff, I don’t. A suspension gets the parent or the caregiver up to school and maybe we can work together and find some outside assistance for the kid. I suggested at a principal’s meeting that we chip in and hire an expert who we could share, my senior colleagues told me to back off, it was perceived by the superintendent as a criticism of her leadership.

Since the Great Recession of 2008 the numbers of psychologists, counselors, social workers and nurses in schools has been sharply curtailed. Yes, it is helpful to have reading and math specialists; specialists can only assist students who are ready to learn. How many of our students live in shelters, in foster care, have an incarcerated parent, a substance-abuse addicted parent or guardian, how many are food insecure, live in gang and crime infested neighborhoods?  The answer is simple: far too many. Principals and teachers must deal with the impact of the world outside of school in classrooms. Not an excuse, we take full responsibility for improving student outcomes; addressing the burdens placed on students and families by factors beyond the control of school must be the responsibility of our elected representatives.

A principal arranged for brand new winter jackets to be donated to all of his kids: attendance improved. Another held a barbeque once a month at the end of parent meetings, parents began coming to the meetings. Did the principal training program include teaching you how to check social media to see if there were any fights over the weekend that might spill over into your building?

Has anyone done a study of the impact of out of control kids on the rest of the class?

I asked an experienced principal if suspensions had a positive impact on the kid who was suspended.

There are some egregious acts, bringing a weapon to school, serious fights that must be dealt with sternly. Suspensions may impact the student who committed the act as well as the rest of the school. Restorative disciplinary practices are fine, principals and their staffs must have access to  a toolkit;  a wide range of approaches that fit the situation – removing a tool, suspensions simply makes the job harder and solutions more difficult.

I asked the same principal, a thoughtful guy, whether, in his view, suspension, was an essential part of the school to prison pipeline.

Don’t get me started, can I single out kids in early childhood grades that probably won’t graduate and will get in trouble with the law – sadly, yes. Try as we might, each year we lose a few more kids to the culture of the streets. The signs are clear: poor attendance, more fights, the wrong friends, we see it every year. We try to reel them back in, sometimes successful, too often not.

Believe it or not we are only thirteen months away from the Democratic mayoral primary. Shortly after the presidential election candidates will have to begin their campaigns: raising dollars and raising their profile. With low polling numbers will a Democrat decide that de Blasio is so damaged that he’s vulnerable?  Does Scott Stringer, the Comptroller, or Letitia James, the Public Advocate want to give up their positions to run for mayor, or, wait four years? How about Reuben Diaz, the Bronx Borough President? Or, maybe a Republican who can raise the mega-dollars – is there another Rudy Giuliani?  For twenty years the heavily Democratic city had Republican mayors. How about Eva Moskowitz?

In my mind there is no question that the UFT, the teacher union is firmly in the de Blasio camp.

Politico has doubts.

The political harmony between Mayor Bill de Blasio and United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew has faded in recent months, with Mulgrew issuing a series of denunciations of City Hall’s key education agenda items.

“We strongly believe that if the DOE properly managed existing programs, the number of suspensions for students under the age of eight would be greatly diminished,” Mulgrew wrote. “Better management would also result in more schools developing a positive culture of discipline and respect. Given the DOE’s poor track record in this area, we cannot support the plan at this time.”

To criticize actions of the Department of Education is not a “series of denunciations;” in mature labor-management relationships the parties can “agree to disagree.”  The actions of the chancellor in whittling away at the discipline code, in sharply reducing the number of suspensions,  we understand, is a political act; an appeal to a constituency that firmly believes that the act of suspension leads to dire consequences for Afro-American males.

All politics is local.

The union president is acting responsibly – he is representing his members, and, the parents of children across the city – you cannot simply bar suspensions without addressing the underlying issues – unacceptable behavior.  The Department cannot simply wave a magic wand and claim restorative justice practices are an alternative to suspension. Principals and teacher must have a wide range of tools to address unacceptable behavior, and to address the social and emotional deficits that result in these behaviors. Schools needs mental health professionals to work with children and their families as well as to work with school staffs and a wider range of alternative settings.

To call out the chancellor is not a sign of political dissatisfaction with the mayor; it is a union leader representing his members.

In the cauldron od politics someone is polling to see whether supporting suspensions will have a positive political impact.

A political axiom: win the election first, making a better world comes next.

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One response to “Suspensions, the School to Prison Pipeline, de Blasio and the 2017 Mayoral Election: “All Politics is Local.”

  1. First things first..There should never be talk of kindergarten suspensions. Kindergarten education while an entitlement is not a requirement in our country.as pre-requisite for attendance in the 1st grade. I spent 7 years in an elementary school in a predominantly African-american community in Brooklyn NY. I served as AP and as Principal in that school. With every kindergarten incoming student, I met personally with each parent. In that meeting, I identified areas of pupil readiness that were prioritized as conditions for admittance. social behavior, self control, etc etc. Of course every parent, as I knew they would assured me that those concerns wre theirs as well. After our meetings, I would escort them to the removal room for difficult to control kindergarteners. If their child was a crier for example, the parent would be required to stay at the school in the event that their child had separation anxieties that resulted in constant crying. That parent would have to continue to be available until the child got over their anxiety of crying. If the parent had to go to work then another adult would have to sub in, or the child would be discontinued as a kindergartener. As for 1st graders and 2nd graders who exhibited what was identified as a suspendable offense, I gave the parent the op of supervising the child in a removal room setting and usually coupled that with a reduction in suspendable days. I was highly regarded for my efforts with regard to alternative school in house suspendable measures. As for grades 3 thru 6, I found that the majority of my parent body were all in favor of at home suspensions for acts of conduct that were of a grievious nature. And we worked together to identify what such grievious suspendable offenses were. And then we held an open house meeting, which was attended by most of our upper grade parents, A parent handbook was an outgrowth of that meeting, and students were made aware of the behavior codes..after this series of events occurred, it was easy to differentiate between those parents who wanted their children to be held accountable for their discipline and those parents who were copouts.

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