NEW YORK - The largest district in the country is taking steps to make sure that its littlest, most vulnerable students are not pushed out of school for misbehaving.
Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio put forth a proposal to ban school suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade. During the past year, 801 students in this age group received suspensions, per education news outlet Chalkbeat New York. The proposal will likely be finalized in the coming weeks after it is presented for public comment.
The proposal is part of the second phase of the mayor’s school safety plan. In 2015, the de Blasio administration worked to put limits on how often students can be suspended for general offenses like insubordination and expand de-escalation training for school safety agents. The efforts were designed to stymie what is commonly referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline, a phenomenon which uses suspensions and school-based arrests to push kids out of school and into the criminal justice system.
So far, the city’s efforts to decrease suspension rates appear to be working. Student suspensions dropped 32 percent for the first half of the 2015 - 2016 school year compared to the previous year. This decrease could have an immense impact on students’ lives. Research shows that just one school suspension ― the practice by which students are removed from their classrooms as a form of punishment ― can lead to a student being more likely to later drop out of school.
On the whole, students of color tend to be disproportionately impacted by these harsh discipline practices. Nationally, black students are nearly 4 times more likely to get suspended than their white counterparts. These disparities are reflected in data for New York City schools too ― an issue the mayor has said he is dedicated to tackling. As touted by the administration, suspension rates for the offense of “insubordination” have dropped sharply in the past year, which has been “historically a major factor in racial disparities in suspensions,” according to a press release from city hall.
The mayor’s new recommendations ― which were announced in partnership with the city council, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña ― replace suspensions with “appropriate positive disciplinary interventions” for kindergarten through second-grade students. The proposals also allocate $47 million for related issues like increased mental health programs for students and training for restorative justice programs. The recommendations call for increased reporting from the New York Police Department on how often students are subjected to school-based arrests and handcuffing.
“New York City schools are earning excellent marks when it comes to safety,” Bratton said in the press release. “They are some of the safest places in the City. Total index crime in schools is down 35 percent over the last five years and, accordingly, so are arrests, suspensions and summonses.”
Overall, however, the recommendations have earned mixed marks by education stakeholders.
A letter sent last week from the United Federation of Teachers to the New York City schools chancellor complains that educators have not been given enough resources to adequately implement these changes.
“In a perfect world, no child under the age of eight would ever be suspended, every child having a discipline crisis would have the proper interventions by adults, and every classroom would be a positive learning environment. We are committed to working toward these goals,” says the letter from union president Michael Mulgrew to Fariña. “Unfortunately, children who are in crisis and who are disrupting classrooms are not going to be helped by this plan to ban suspensions in grades K-2, and neither will the thousands of other children who will lose instruction as a result of those disruptions.”
Other groups have expressed optimism. Kesi Foster, coordinator for the Urban Youth Collaborative, a student group that fights for social justice issues, called the proposals “important measures that all stakeholders committed to ending the school-to-prison pipeline should embrace and support,” according to a press release.
Similarly, a youth leader with the group named Onyx Walker said in the press release, “Eliminating suspensions for K-2nd grade is progress, but we have much further to go if we are going to make school welcoming for everyone. We have to expand that same compassion and understanding for youth of all ages, and sexual and gender identities, and we have to break this cycle of Black students being pushed into the criminal justice system, and we have to do it right away.”
Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.