First Person: How can we teach students to be productive members of a community by removing them from it?

As educators and school leaders grapple with changes in discipline policy in New York City, “safety” is cited as a primary concern of teachers from schools struggling to shift from punitive discipline structures to more restorative ones. As a longtime city teachers and union members, we feel that a vital consideration continues to be left out of these conversations: the impact of punitive discipline and the safety of students of color and their families.

Teachers Unite and our coalition partners in the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York have long been advocating for (and won) changes to the city’s discipline code. We’ve demanded adequate funding and resources — including staffing, professional development, central coordination by the Department of Education, and youth and parent training — for sustainable, grassroots implementation of positive alternatives. We know well that the process of transforming school culture from punitive to restorative takes time, real administrative commitment, and requires students and adults alike to change their outlook on school relationships and discipline structures.

In under-funded, over-scrutinized public schools, this transition can be incredibly frustrating, as we do not have the resources we need.

In this context, we see that even well-meaning administrators and other school staff feel pressured to show lower suspension numbers rather than work for real, positive changes in school climate. But this is why teachers, young people, and families must continue to push for further policy changes and more resources at the same time.

As public school educators, we cannot allow for our frustrations with the sloppy rollout of restorative practices in New York City to justify a call for punitive discipline. We must resist the myth that more suspensions make us safer.

The fact is that black students and students with special needs continue to be suspended and arrested at enormously disparate rates, even as the number of punishments has decreased in recent years. Moreover, there is much evidence that these discrepancies result directly from educator and school police responses to student behavior, more than any real differences in behavior between black students and white students.

These students will continue to face hostile school climates and encounter the criminal justice system at a rate far outpacing their peers if we don’t directly address the institutional and interpersonal racism that students and families encounter each day, even when it means demanding uncomfortable reflection and change from educators.

Having served several years as a dean of student discipline before working in a school that focused on restorative interventions, Tyler knows firsthand there is no direct correlation between punitive disciplinary responses and improved school climate and safety. In fact, she discovered that students who were suspended for negative behaviors actually fell into a pattern of repeated suspensions and became increasingly disconnected from the school community.

How can we teach students to be a productive member of a community by removing them from the community?

We’ve both seen hundreds of small human conflicts lead unnecessarily to the suspension, arrest, or push-out of black and Latino high school students. The over-reliance on a punitive discipline model leaves students feeling pushed out and unwanted. Instead of putting distance between students exhibiting unwanted behaviors and the school community, we should be pulling them closer and supporting them.

While Families for Excellent Schools and others try to demonize public education using narratives that rely on the idea that schools serving students of color need suspensions to remain safe, we push back on discipline systems based solely on control and punishment. We will continue to fight for the resources that public schools need, and for continued policy changes to curb the use of suspensions for minor infractions.

Join Teachers Unite in demanding that the path to true school safety be built and cultivated to ensure that parents, students, and educators have space, time, and resources to build a caring and accountable community that respects the safety and dignity of all. Join us in pushing for the city to invest more fully in these whole-school transformations, including staffing of unionized restorative justice coordinators and funding for more professional development, youth and parent leadership and training, and district-wide coordination.

And, in the meantime, find support within a community of other educators who are trying to implement what makes sense and works best for our students, classrooms, and schools, on our terms.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.