Student suspensions fall sharply in New York City, reversing an unusual bump the year before

Suspensions handed out to New York City public school students last year fell significantly, reversing an unusual uptick the year before.

The total number of suspensions decreased 10.5% in the 2018-19 school year to 32,801, according to data released Friday by the education department. 

Principal suspensions, which are handed out for less serious offenses, and are typically under six days, decreased by nearly 10%. Meanwhile, more serious superintendent suspensions — which can range from a few days to an entire school year — decreased by roughly 12%. Still, big disparities remain in terms of which students are punished. Black students and students with disabilities continue to be disproportionately suspended, while white and Asian students are underrepresented. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made school discipline reform a priority since taking office in 2014. City schools have seen multiple changes to the discipline code that have limited suspensions for the city’s youngest students and for more subjective infractions such as “insubordination.” The changes have also required approval from central office administrators for a host of infractions. But these efforts have won mixed reviews from educators, who say training in alternatives to student suspensions has been scattershot and has coincided with a parallel drop in discipline within some schools.

The decrease last year more than erases a 4% increase during the 2017-18 school year, the first rise in suspensions under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Chancellor Richard Carranza suggested that increase was linked to the response of a fatal school stabbing in the Bronx that year. Following that uptick, city officials rolled out more training on “restorative” approaches, a constellation of practices that favor peer mediation and conflict resolution over ejecting students from their regular schools or classes.

On average, the length of the average suspension last year slid to 5.8 days compared with 7.5 days the year before. (This school year, the department tweaked the discipline code to limit most suspensions to 20 days, though they had been quietly doing that even before the policy officially changed.) Students who are suspended for more than five days on superintendent suspensions are typically sent to alternative sites, which some students have likened to jails.

Overall, suspensions have fallen roughly 39% in the past five years, and major crimes in schools have fallen 32%, officials said.

[Related: Here are the numbers for every NYC school]

De Blasio has championed policies that make issuing suspensions more difficult — including among students in grades K-2 — and the education department has started requiring central signoff for suspensions for certain infractions. The city has also invested in training staff members to provide alternatives to suspensions, something that community advocates have asked for.

Yet, the city’s new discipline policies have drawn criticism from some educators as well as union officials. Limiting schools’ ability to suspend students without proper training in alternative approaches has made schools more chaotic and dangerous, they argue.

[Calling all educators: Tell us about your experience with student discipline by filling out our survey]

The data released Friday continues to show deep disparities, and many students of color note they continue to be disproportionately targeted for discipline. A report from the city’s Independent Budget Office found black students are more likely to receive harsher suspensions than students from other racial groups for the top eight out of ten categories of infractions.

Research has shown that suspensions can have a long-lasting impact. They are associated with declines in students’ academic performance, and suspended students are more likely to drop out of school and enter the juvenile-justice system. A study focusing on New York City suggests that suspensions contribute to students passing fewer classes, increasing their risk of dropping out, and lowering the odds of graduating.

Nearly 45% of the city’s suspensions went to black students, even though they represent about 26% of the student population. (City officials stressed that the number has fallen about eight percentage points in the past five years.)

White students accounted for nearly 9% percent of the city’s suspensions despite being roughly 15% of the city’s students. Hispanic students accounted for 39% of suspensions and are just under 41% of students.

About 40% of suspensions were issued to students with disabilities last year. Overall, 20% of the city’s students are listed as having a disability.

The share of suspensions among these different groups were similar to the year before.

“Our schools are safe and our approach is working, and we’re going to continue to dive deeper into this work to address disparities that persist nationally, and in New York City,” Carranza said in a statement.

New York City has joined many other districts working to reduce suspensions, especially for historically marginalized student groups. But even supporters of the mayor’s efforts say the city still needs to do more to ensure schools aren’t funneling certain student populations into the criminal justice system.

City officials pointed to a number of initiatives to improve school climate and reduce student suspensions. They noted that the education department has overhauled an agreement with the police department to limit the situations in which police officials can send students into the criminal justice system for relatively low-level offenses. And they pointed to investments in implicit-bias training and additional social workers.

Research suggests that some of the disparities in school discipline are rooted in bias from teachers and administrators. A study in Louisiana found that black students received slightly harsher punishments than white students for the same altercation; other research has shown that black students are more likely to be suspended for discretionary offenses such as insubordination. Black teachers are also less likely to suspend black students than white teachers.

Some advocates cheered the continued decline in suspensions, and added that more  social support is needed.

“Going forward, it is critical that the city build on these promising results by creating a solid infrastructure to institutionalize them and make the necessary additional investments in mental health services and supports, social workers, and restoratives practices to further expand on them,” said Dawn Yuster, director of the School Justice Project at Advocates for Children.