As discipline code revisions delayed, advocates want some suspensions banned

The school discipline code will soon get its first update under the de Blasio administration, and advocates are hoping that Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s talk of discipline reform will translate into a new suspension policy.

Specifically, organizations like the Dignity in Schools Campaign and the New Settlement Parent Action Committee want the revised code to ban suspensions for Infraction B21, or “defying or disobeying authority.” It’s a move that some other big cities, including Los Angeles, have already made in an attempt to reduce the number of students taken out of the classroom—though not one with universal support from educators.

The discipline code, which outlines the city’s school discipline policies and students’ rights, is updated and released before every school year. Over the past few years, changes have focused on reducing suspensions and promoting alternative discipline measures.

This summer, the discipline code revision has been postponed indefinitely, though it will likely be completed within the next two months so it can go into effect in September. Last year the department held a public hearing to solicit feedback on proposed changes to the code, and this year’s hearing, scheduled for June 10, has yet to take place.

A spokeswoman for the department did not provide an explanation for the delay, though she did say the department is continuing to review the code as well as public feedback.

“We’re hopeful it’s delayed for reasons we support,” said Brady Smith, principal of the James Baldwin School in Chelsea, a school that has been proactive in its attempts to reduce suspensions and develop alternative discipline policies.

While the department did not say whether a revised code will prohibit suspensions for Infraction B21, Fariña has spoken about her desire to reduce suspensions citywide. Although suspensions across the city fell 27 percent between 2010 and 2013, some groups of students are still disproportionately suspended.

In the 2012-13 school year, 53 percent of students suspended were black, even though black students constitute 27 percent of public school enrollment. Twelve percent of public school students have special needs, yet those students served 34 percent of suspensions that year.

“Defying or disobeying authority” is the second most common reason for New York City student suspensions. Last May, the Los Angeles Unified School District prohibited suspensions for “willful defiance,” a similar category that advocates say was often used to justify suspensions that could have been dealt with less harshly.

But critics of banning suspensions for “defying authority” argue that punitive discipline can be important for giving students structure and showing that actions have consequences.

Ilana Garon, who has taught high school English for 10 years on the Christopher Columbus campus, said that advocacy groups are not “clear on the realities of the classroom.” Ideally, she believes, schools would have a wider range of options for disciplining students, but suspensions still serve as a powerful deterrent.

“High school students are old enough to know better, that you don’t curse out a teacher,” she said. “If we send them a message that in the working world that’s OK, I don’t think that’s helping them either. Also, when you’re having a class of 34 kids and one kid is being crazily disruptive, you’ve got to think about the other 33 kids. They have a right to education as well.”

Banning suspensions for “defying authority” could also create a resource gap. While the city has committed to expanding restorative justice programs for dealing with discipline issues, those programs would only reach a fraction of city schools, potentially leaving others without new resources for dealing with student behavior problems.

Still, advocates think “defying or disobeying authority” is much too broad a category to be a fair rationale for suspension.

“I think it’s scary when you go to school as a student and for any minor thing, you get suspended and it all falls under one category,” said Lynn Sanchez, a parent involved with the New Settlement Apartments Parent Action Committee. “There are specifics as to pushing, fighting, things of that nature, but anything can be insubordination.”

Rachel Lissy, the senior program officer at Ramapo for Children, said that while discipline policy changes are a start, teachers also need more training to develop classroom management skills and reflect on the sources of student behavior issues.

Teachers never enter the profession looking to punish students, Lissy added. Yet in some cases, “lacking classroom management skills, frustrated by a lack of control, and bruised by the hurtful behavior of their students, [they] may be drawn to punitive practices,” she said.

The ban on suspensions for Infraction B21 would be the latest in a string of changes meant to reduce suspensions and counter the phenomenon of “pushout,” in which a student feels consistently alienated from school and is pushed farther away from graduating, feeding the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

When a suspension does occur, it can take one of two forms: a principal’s suspension, which lasts for one to five days, and a superintendent’s suspension, which can last between six days and a year.

During a principal’s suspension, students are supposed to come to school and complete schoolwork in a specially designated room. For a superintendent’s suspension, students go to a hearing where they have the chance to argue their case and potentially shorten their suspension. Once the suspension begins, the student must report to an Alternate Learning Center, where he or she receives group instruction with other suspended students.

In August 2012, changes to the discipline code prohibited the city from issuing superintendent’s suspensions to students in kindergarten through third grade. The same year, a section in the Discipline Code was created to describe restorative approaches like student justice panels.

For the 2013-14 school year, the language in the code was changed to read that schools “must,” instead of “should,” make “every reasonable effort” to utilize guidance interventions such as counseling, parent outreach, community service when disciplining students.

Aside from pushing revisions to the Discipline Code, some groups are exploring alternate ways to decrease suspensions. The New Settlement Parent Action Committee, for one, has brought students and parents to speak at training sessions for approximately 1,000 school safety agents, according to Sanchez. Approximately 200 police officers and 5,000 school safety agents are currently scattered across the city’s schools.

“I think that it’s an eye-opener for them when they start understanding what the school-to-prison pipeline is, when they start getting data as to which sets of students are mostly affected, when they start understanding what students are thinking,” Sanchez said. “It’s a powerful dynamic.”

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