Suspension Intervention

How often does New York City tell its principals they can’t suspend a student?

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy, including insubordination or "B-21."

Before 2015, principals only had to seek approval from the city for the most serious suspensions. But starting in April of that year, the city added an oversight mechanism: Requiring principals to get permission from the education department before suspending students in grades K-3, or a student in any grade for insubordination.

Some school leaders and union officials complained, saying the policy makes it harder to maintain order.

But how often does the city overrule a principal’s judgment?

In all, the education department rejected about 22 percent of suspension requests under those categories during the 2015-16 school year, the first full year under the new code. Officials rejected 453 of the 2,008 requests to suspend students for insubordination, or 23 percent. And they rejected about 20 percent of the 1,039 attempts to suspend students in grades K-3, or 31 percent if you include the more serious suspensions that already required approval.

“It is promising to see that there are rejections and that suspensions are not rubber-stamped by the Department of Education,” said Dawn Yuster, the school justice project director at Advocates for Children. “They’re using this as a way of showing schools they’re serious about the policy changes.”

The requirement that principals earn approval for certain suspensions came as part of a series of edits to the discipline code — championed by Mayor Bill de Blasio — designed to discourage their use and move schools toward less punitive approaches.

The number of total rejections (659) is tiny compared to the total number of principal suspensions issued last year (27,122). (Principals have long been required to clear more serious superintendent suspensions with the department; last year, schools issued 10,525 of them and were rejected 2,171 times.)

Still, in concert with the city’s shift away from suspensions more generally, the decision to require an extra layer of approval in certain cases may be having an effect. Overall, suspensions have fallen by roughly 30 percent under de Blasio’s watch, continuing a downward trend that began under his predecessor.

“There’s kind of an unwritten rule where schools know these suspensions aren’t going to be approved, so schools don’t put a whole lot of them through,” said Damon McCord, co-principal at the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens.

Officials have taken particular aim at suspensions for insubordination, one of the offenses that now requires approval. Advocates charge that its inclusion in the discipline code contributes to the disproportionate removal of students of color and those with disabilities from their classrooms — and its use has plummeted 75 percent over the past two school years. The city has also pledged to virtually eliminate suspensions for the city’s youngest students (that policy is expected to take effect later this month).

But the dramatic drop in suspensions has earned mixed reviews from some educators who say there has been a parallel dip in discipline. Ernest Logan, head of the city’s principals union, argues school leaders should be trusted with suspension decisions, as long as they’re following the discipline code.

“When the chancellor selects a principal, then you should give that principal the authority to run their schools,” Logan said in response to the rejection numbers. “Why do you have a principal there if you don’t accept their judgment?”

Lois Herrera, CEO of the education department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development, which oversees the suspension approval process, said the extra layer of oversight ensures students are only suspended if they are actually interfering with their peers’ educations. “We saw it as an opportunity to add that extra quality control and make sure if we had to suspend, it was appropriately used.”

Suspensions are more likely to approved if the misbehavior constitutes a pattern, interferes with instruction, or other alternatives have been exhausted, Herrera said, noting that forthcoming updates to the discipline code will “strengthen” the requirement that schools try other options first.

“If we say no [to a principal], it doesn’t mean we’re turning a blind eye to misbehavior,” Herrera said, because her office often helps schools find alternative approaches. Asked if principals could simply suspend students for similar infractions that don’t require approval, she said she there was no evidence of that in the data.

McCord, the Queens principal, said the education department rejected his attempt to suspend a student who repeatedly tried to skip afternoon classes. “We probably didn’t do a good enough job articulating the prior interventions we’d already done,” he said.

Still, he supports the city’s review policy.

“We just found other ways to address [misbehavior],” he noted. “If you’re working that hard to suspend a kid, you probably need to rethink your approach.”

high praise

In a speech to ALEC, Betsy DeVos name drops Indiana school choice programs and advocates

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
Protestors gathered in front of the Indiana State House before marching through downtown Indianapolis to protest ALEC's annual meeting taking place at the JW Marriott downtown last year.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos praised Indiana’s charter school and voucher programs today in Colorado during a speech to the American Legislative Exchange Council, known as ALEC.

The organization, strongly criticized by teachers unions, is a conservative nonprofit lobbying group that pairs conservative legislators and business owners to write model legislation. ALEC is holding its annual conference this week in Denver.

DeVos highlighted how Indiana was an early state to adopt charter schools, taxpayer-funded voucher programs and tax credit scholarships, following the example of Minnesota and Wisconsin. She also mentioned the contributions of current and former Indiana leaders, calling out former Gov. Mitch Daniels and current Gov. Eric Holcomb, as well as House Speaker Brian Bosma and U.S. Rep. Todd Huston.

She also spoke highly of politicians from Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin, Florida and Kentucky.

“Progress in providing parents and students educational choices didn’t come through a top-down federal dictate – it came as a result of leadership from governors like John Engler, Tommy Thompson, Jeb Bush and Mitch Daniels and continued with governors like Doug Ducey, Scott Walker, Eric Holcomb, Rick Scott and Matt Bevin.

And it came from state legislative leaders like Polly Williams in Wisconsin, Brian Bosma and Todd Huston in Indiana, Ann Duplessis in Louisiana, Debbie Lesko in Arizona, Dan Forest in North Carolina, and so many others, many of whom are in this room today.”

DeVos’ picks are among the state’s most ardent school choice advocates, championing legislation that has established a prolific charter school system and one of the largest voucher programs in the country.

Read: The first major study of Indiana’s voucher program might not change much for the state’s strong pro-school choice legislature

ALEC has had far-reaching influence in Indiana, with several key lawmakers participating in the group and elements of the group’s model laws inspiring some of Indiana’s education reforms in recent years. Rep. Bob Behning, chairman of the House Education Committee, has been a member.

The group also admires and has sought to promote Indiana’s legislative work on education, naming its model legislation for school choice programs the “Indiana Education Reform Package.”

Last summer, ALEC held its yearly conference in Indianapolis.

You can find DeVos’ full speech here.

tech trouble

New York City continues to lose track of thousands of school computers, audit finds

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
On Wednesday, City Comptroller Scott Stringer criticized the city's ability to keep track of education technology.

Thousands of computers and tablets that belong in city schools are either missing or unaccounted for — and the city has failed to create a centralized tracking system despite repeated warnings, according to a new audit from Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Just over 1,800 pieces of technology were missing from eight schools and one administrative office sampled by auditors, and another 3,500 in those nine locations were not sufficiently tracked, roughly 35 percent of the computers and tablets purchased for them.

If that sounds like déjà vu, it should: The findings are similar to a 2014 audit that showed significant amounts of missing technology — lost to theft or poor tracking — among a different sample of schools.

“I’m demanding that the [Department of Education] track these computers and tablets centrally,” Stringer said Wednesday. “I shouldn’t have to come back every two years to explain why this matters.”

Of the computers that were missing in the 2014 audit, the city could now only account for 13 percent of them, Stringer’s office said.

The audit raises questions about whether the education department can cost-effectively manage technology as it plans to expand access to it. Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised every student will have access to computer science education by 2025.

Education department spokesman Will Mantell called the report’s methodology “fundamentally flawed and unreliable,” arguing in part that the comptroller’s office didn’t always use the right inventory list or interview the correct staff. He noted the city is working to improve its inventory management.

The city “will continue to invest in cost-effective solutions that catalog and safeguard technology purchases in the best interests of students, schools and taxpayers,” Mantell added.