NYC set to adopt long-debated changes to student discipline code that will further reduce suspensions

Since last summer, education officials have been promising a new set of discipline policies that would dramatically reduce the number of suspensions issued to the city’s youngest students and continue the city’s shift away from those penalties for older students.

But exactly when those changes would become policy has remained unclear. Now, they appear to be imminent: The new discipline code will be in place by the end of April, according to education department spokeswoman Toya Holness.

The road to securing the reforms has been bumpy. In July, the city announced that it intended to completely ban suspensions in grades K-2, and reduce the maximum punishments for a number of offenses in other grades. The plan drew a mixture of praise and criticism.

“Children who are in crisis and who are disrupting classrooms are not going to be helped by this plan to ban suspensions in grades K–2,” United Federation of Teachers chief Michael Mulgrew argued, “and neither will the thousands of other children who will lose instruction as a result of those disruptions.”

Education officials later backtracked, saying that suspensions in K-2 would be allowed but reserved for only the most serious circumstances, fueling pushback from advocates that the city’s pace of reform is too slow.

“It’s been incremental change for a decade,” Johanna Miller, advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, told Chalkbeat in January. “We’re working with a broken system if we’re talking about telling a six-year-old it’s no longer appropriate to come to school.”

The debate over the city’s discipline code raises larger questions, some of which are also being asked in other large school districts across the country: Will reducing suspensions improve learning conditions in general, and especially for students of color and those with disabilities who are disproportionately subjected to them? Or will quickly phasing them out leave educators without the tools they need to maintain school order?

Mayor Bill de Blasio has come down firmly in favor of a series of policy changes that have made it harder to suspend students, winning some praise from advocates in the process. Continuing a trend that started under Bloomberg, schools issued about 30 percent fewer suspensions last year than just two years prior, a fact the city has touted as an accomplishment.

It is less clear however, whether those policies are playing out in a productive way inside schools. With support from the city, certain schools have faithfully implemented alternative approaches, which involve resolving conflict through discussion and reflection. And some students have said those efforts are making a noticeable difference.

But others, including some teachers and union officials, have said the city has not done enough to train educators to help schools adapt to the new policies — sowing chaos in the meantime.

A recent report from the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute offers some evidence to support that narrative, drawing on surveys of students and teachers. Meanwhile, advocates who see reducing suspensions as a critical civil rights issue have continued to point out that, even as suspensions fall, troubling racial disparities persist.

The policy change set to go into effect this month will likely refocus these arguments — as the de Blasio administration throws its weight behind a new discipline code that will further limit the use of suspensions. But how the changes will affect the city’s schools, as districts across the country experiment with similar policies, remains to be seen.