new approach

Long-awaited discipline policy changes further restrict suspensions, restraints

PHOTO: Ron Coleman

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced long-awaited revisions to school discipline policies on Friday, including new suspension procedures and restrictions on school-based police officers.

The plan includes a new review process for suspensions for insubordination, restrictions on handcuffing students, and expanded training for the city’s School Safety Agents. The changes came as the city faced mounting pressure to further revamp its discipline code given the disproportionate suspension rates of black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities, which city officials have said they are committed to improving.

“Today’s changes will protect students from bullying and violence, and provide relief and a better school experience for students who need to be focused on their learning and not constantly worry about getting suspended for any minor incident,” Chancellor Fariña said in a statement.

Suspensions are down 27 percent since 2011, and in-school arrests have dropped 32 percent between 2012-13 and 2013-14, according to city statistics. But black and Hispanic students account for 90 percent of suspensions but just 70 percent of city students, while students with special needs account for about one-third of suspensions.

Under the new policy, principals will be required to obtain written approval from the department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development before suspending a student for defying authority, a move likely to reduce suspensions for less significant offenses. The more severe superintendent’s suspensions are being no longer an option for students involved in “minor physical altercations.”

The city’s changes are less drastic than those made by a few other large cities in recent years. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles have eliminated schools’ ability to suspend students for “willful defiance,” and there has been a nationwide push to roll back zero-tolerance discipline policies, which favored severe penalties for minor infractions.

The changes came as a disappointment to advocacy groups, who wanted the city to eliminate suspensions for “defying authority” and bar school safety officers from being able to arrest or ticket students for misbehavior. In a sign that there could be more changes coming, de Blasio and Fariña created a “School Climate Leadership Team” that includes advocacy groups.

“We’re hopeful about the creation of the mayor’s leadership team, and think that could help us pave the way for new discipline policies,” said Shoshi Chowdhury of the Dignity in Schools campaign.

Principals have long cautioned that it’s not simple to remove a tool for dealing with unruly students, like suspensions, especially if schools don’t get any additional training or resources.

The city is allocating $432,000 in new money for the changes, officials said, to expand an algebra-based mentoring program from four to six schools next year. The programs will cost $5 million overall, though that money is already being spent.

The City Council will continue providing funding to train school staff in “restorative justice” practices, which include peer mediation and student panels that try to change students’ behaviors. Supporters say that those programs can help create a positive environment and offer a more productive way of dealing with disruptive students, though they take significant effort to implement fully.

“We have a lot of schools interested in changing their discipline policies, but they know it takes money, staff, and training time,” said Urban Youth Collaborative coordinator Kesi Foster.

The changes are the latest in a series of recent edits to the city’s discipline and suspension policies, but the first under the de Blasio administration.

Calls for changes to the suspension policy grew louder when the city began reporting suspension statistics in 2012. A coalition of advocates led by retired Chief Judge of New York Judith Kaye made recommendations for changes in 2013, and the discipline code—which outlines the city’s school discipline policies and students’ rights—has changed over the last few years to emphasize alternatives to suspension.

The package of changes announced Friday includes new training and restrictions on School Safety Agents and police officers assigned to schools, who man metal detectors and patrol the halls of city schools. (The city’s 5,000 safety agents together make up one of the largest police forces in the country, and report to the police department, not the principals in their buildings.)

And after advocacy groups publicly voiced their frustrations in October about reports of children as young as five being restrained in schools, the discipline code now says that students under age 12 will not be handcuffed. The police department will also start providing monthly reports on how often students are restrained.

The revised code includes more information on how schools can address bullying and changes to rules about calling 911 for help dealing with disruptive students. The city settled a lawsuit in December requiring the Department of Education to come up with a formal plan for dealing with disruptive students that didn’t involve calling 911, which often resulted in students being sent to the emergency room though they had no medical issues. The city is now proposing that each school be responsible for developing a guide for when a student’s behavior warrants calling 911.

The proposed changes to the discipline code will be discussed at a March 2 hearing and will go into effect this spring.

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.