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Students Know Best on High Suspension Rates and Zero Tolerance in NYC Schools

June 22, 2011

Over 100 students, parents, educators, advocates and elected officials spoke out against rising suspensions and demanded positive alternatives at a press conference and public hearing on proposed revisions to the NYC Department of Education’s Discipline Code. Suspensions in NYC have increased at an alarming rate. Between 2001 and 2010, the number of infractions in the Discipline Code increased by 49% and the number of zero tolerance infractions requiring a suspension increased by 200%. In 2008-2009, there were 73,000 suspensions in NYC public schools. These punitive policies target students of color at higher rates, contributing to the achievement gap and low graduation rates. Black students, who make up 33% of the population, received 53% of suspensions. Research by the American Psychological Association has shown that children who are suspended are more prone to fall behind in school, be held back, drop out and become incarcerated as adults.

In the last two years, as a result of advocacy from members of Dignity in Schools Campaign NY, the Department of Education has made some positive changes to the Discipline Code. Last year, restorative justice approaches and Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) were added to the Code for the first time, and the automatic suspension for fighting was changed to give principals the option to use parent conferences instead. This year, the Level 4 fighting infraction has been revised to exclude minor altercations, directing schools to use less severe suspensions or alternatives identified under Level 3 of the Code.

However, schools are still given wide discretion to enact severe suspensions as they see fit for a wide range of often minor misbehavior, resulting in high suspension rates and detrimental outcomes for students.  For example, students can receive up to 10 day suspensions for “leaving class” or “being insubordinate” and up to 90 days for “sexually suggestive comments” or for fighting that does not result in serious injury.

Schools around the nation that have implemented positive alternatives to suspensions, like conflict resolution, restorative justice practices, and PBIS, have seen reductions of up to 50% in suspensions and violent incidents, and increases in teacher satisfaction and academic outcomes. Schools in New York City are also beginning to implement these positive approaches.

Below is what youth have to say:

Nilesh Vishwasrao (DRUM Youth Leader)

I was a former student at Flushing High School, and in the 4 long years in that school I had seen a lot and went through a lot more.  From freshman to senior year I had been suspended a number of times for infractions such as chewing gum, or even wearing a hat and etc.  Eventually I was constantly being suspended for minor reasons very similar to the ones just mentioned. By the fall semester of my senior year in school, my dad was called in for a meeting with my guidance counselor to discuss how I’m doing in school. When my dad came, my counselor told him that I should just drop out, that I have nothing to do in high school and am better off getting a GED.

I am not the only one who has been through this.  Friends of mine and MANY others have been pushed out of school in very similar ways. In 2008-2009, there were 73,000 suspensions in NYC public schools. That year more than 20% of suspensions lasted more than week, compared to 14% in 1999-2000.  Our schools are like prisons with every corner filled with school safety agents, keeping students in constant fear of being accused of something wrong, our public schools are filled with metal detectors and SSA’s, making students feel like criminals rather than normal teenagers.

There ARE schools around the country using positive alternatives to suspensions, with VERY positive results like higher graduation rates, and lower drop out rates. After using restorative justice practices for one year in West Philadelphia High School, suspensions were down by 50% and violent acts and serious incidents dropped by 52%.  In 2004-2005, the Council for Unity (A NYC based program focused on safety, bias, bullying, and gang violence in schools) achieved a 95% High School graduation rate for program participants, improved attendance by 80%, and 100% of youth reported a positive impact on their lives. There are positive outcomes whereever restorative justice practices are implemented.  It comes to show that using suspensions are discouraging students and putting them on the route to further more suspensions and on the path of being pushed out, dropping out or even, ultimately being incarcerated.

IF the DOE is serious about reducing suspensions, improving school discipline, and being accountable to students and parents than we NEED the DOE to regularly meet with students, parents and the Dignity in Schools coalition monthly because WE are the experts on schools, not the “trained” school safety agents or the horribly constructed discipline code that continues criminalizing the youth!

Chanwatie Ramnauth (DRUM Youth Leader)

On my very first day of high school, I did not even want to come back because a School Safety Agent yelled at me for having a cell phone. I was not even aware that cell phones were not allowed in the school because my middle school did not enforce that rule. Looking back, I see that it was not nearly a big enough deal to scare me due to the fact that they let other students in with their phones, the ones they like.  A few weeks later, an SSA had pushed me in the hallway at school causing me to bang my head on the wall. Until that day I had never experienced such pain, and he did not even apologize after carrying out that act. And in another case, one of my friends was accused of having a cell phone. He was searched and beaten up because the SSA had escalated the problem and still no cell phone was found.

A school discipline code means nothing if there is no accountability from those who are assigned to enforce it and if blame is put on the students who get criminalized every day due to the heavy police presence, metal detectors and zero tolerance policies.  In 1998, when zero tolerance practices were first being put into schools, the total number of infractions was at a low rate of seven percent. The most recent 2010 data shows that number had tripled to twenty one percent. SSA’s make problems worse and the existing school disciplinary code does not help either. It allows the NYPD to step into the situations and it uses suspensions as a first resort to consequences.

So representatives of the DOE, I am here to tell you that we need more restorative justice and conflict resolution along with peer mediation practices to discuss the causes of these issues in our school rather than automatically suspending our youth. Research shows that 69.8% of students in schools that practice restorative justice programs plan to go to college and only 44.7% of students in schools that practice zero tolerance policies plan to do so. There should be more investments made in these programs and less in cops and zero tolerance practices. This increased motive for college will improve our schools and communities greatly.

The DOE must meet with the Dignity in Schools Campaign, so resolutions can be made to many school issues. Meetings should be held all year around to get the best results. The DOE should listen to parents and the youth to actually know what is going on inside our public schools. Men that sit in  offices and cubicles wearing suits do not know of what really happens in our schools, we do, so take our advice and listen to us.

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