Liu extends call for discipline changes, starting in middle school

New York City’s school discipline practices have given rise to an early-onset “stop-and-frisk atmosphere” that must be changed, according to Comptroller John Liu.

In a new report, Liu — who is running for mayor — cites Department of Education suspension and arrest data to argue that the city should add more guidance counselors, eliminate long-term suspensions, and turn over control of school safety from the New York Police Department to principals. He pegs the annual cost of adding 50 percent more middle school guidance counselors at $55 million.

According to data that the department must disclose publicly under a law that the City Council passed in 2010, suspension and arrest rates rise sharply during middle school and that black and Latino students, especially males, are suspended disproportionately often. Liu’s report connects the trends to high school dropout rates and contends that more black and Latino students would graduate if schools adopted discipline practices that emphasized changing student behavior.

In a statement, Liu compared the discipline patterns inside schools to the city’s controversial practice of stopping, questioning, and frisking people who seem likely to commit a crime. Black and Latino New Yorkers are stopped most often, and critics of the practice, who include Liu and several other Democratic mayoral candidates, say it is often applied inappropriately.

“This report demonstrates the sad reality that the stop-and-frisk atmosphere, which presumes that men of color are guilty until proven innocent, begins as early as age 11,” he said.

His comments reiterate ones he made this spring at a rally convened by the Dignity in Schools campaign, which has long pushed for less punitive school discipline policies, to pressure mayoral candidates to commit to changing school discipline practices.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Liu said at the rally, which he was the only candidate to attend. “You see the disparities in the school suspensions and disciplinary actions disproportionately against students of color, and you see things like racial profiling and stop and frisk that are clearly tilted disproportionately way against people of color.”

The report’s recommendations echo those made by the campaign and its supporters over the last several years. Liu also recommends adding more guidance counselors and social workers in city middle schools, dovetailing with a recommendation he made last year to more than double the number of counselors in high schools. That proposal would cost $176 million a year, his office said.

Department of Education officials said the city had already implemented many of the strategies that Liu’s report promotes, to significant effect.

“Suspensions have decreased by 23 percent as a result of the reforms we have introduced, including peer mediation and conflict resolution, to address issues before they escalate,” said a spokeswoman, Marge Feinberg.

Indeed, suspensions and arrests fell sharply last year, following a policy change last year that reduced penalties for minor misbehavior, introduced some alternatives to suspensions, and eliminated suspensions altogether for the city’s youngest students. But the department made more incremental changes to the discipline code for this year, leading advocates to say that the city had passed up an opportunity to improve the school safety climate even more.

Liu’s report is the latest in his office’s “Beyond High School NYC” initiative, which Liu said uses research to propose “strategic investments in public education” to raise the college-graduation rate for New York City public school students. Previous reports in the series called for the city to spend $176 million a year on guidance counselors to help more students get into college; to buy $40 million of computers a year to get all families online; to overhaul the city’s school board, known as the Panel for Educational Policy; and to introduce publicly funded preschool for three-year-olds.

The complete report is below: