‘It’s basically jail’: Inside NYC’s suspension centers, where there’s bullying, boredom — and sometimes support

Marcus Alston thought he was fiddling with a bottle of his friend’s perfume when he unleashed pepper spray on the floor of his high school Spanish class.

It didn’t seem serious to Alston, now a junior at Manhattan’s Pace High School, and he admitted responsibility. But officials said in a letter that Alston “was in possession of a dangerous chemical,” classified as a weapon in the discipline code.

The incident last school year resulted in a month-long suspension in one of the city’s 34 suspension centers, where students are sent for suspensions longer than five days.

To Alston, it felt like jail. “Learning in that place is not a thing because of the chaos happening,” he said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has made reducing suspensions a pillar of his education agenda, and overall suspension rates have plummeted since he took office. Yet lengthier out-of-school suspensions, disproportionately issued to students of color, have fallen much less sharply.

And while advocates have called attention to lengthy punishments, what happens inside the suspension centers themselves is largely shielded from the public and faces little scrutiny. Known as “Alternate Learning Centers,” they are not included in the city’s school quality reports, meaning there is virtually no public information about their safety, attendance, or students’ performance.

According to more than a dozen interviews with students, center staff, and advocates, the suspension centers are dull at best and chaotic at worst, sometimes derailing students academically and failing to address the problems that landed them out-of-school suspensions in the first place. Academic expectations are often low; in some cases, students say they spent their days filling out worksheets that have little to do with the coursework from their original schools, watched movies, or slept. Lots of students don’t show up at all.

Still, officials and advocates say the conditions have improved in recent years. The suspension centers typically boast small class sizes and better access to guidance counselors and social workers than traditional public schools provide. Some students have even requested to stay longer than their suspensions require.

However, it’s impossible to say how common that experience is or generally how effective the centers are, because the education department releases little information about them. Officials declined requests for Chalkbeat to visit any of the suspension centers and did not produce any data showing what happens to students once they leave.

“We don’t know all that much about them,” said Danny Dromm, a city councilman and former education committee chairman who has introduced legislation that would require the department to release statistics about the centers.

From the moment he arrived at his assigned suspension center, Alston said things felt different from Pace (which declined to comment on his case). Staffers at the Battery Park suspension center confiscated his hoodie, which he was normally allowed to wear at school, patted him down, and searched his bag.

Things didn’t improve from there. Although staffers at the suspension center asked what classes Alston was taking, they placed him in a basic algebra course even though he was taking geometry. And it wasn’t long before Alston, who identifies as bisexual, says he was bullied.

“Some kids are saying, ‘I knock faggots out,’ or were calling my friends that,” he said, adding that staff members rarely intervened. “You’re definitely singled out if you’re different. You didn’t know if you were going to be safe.”

A destabilizing experience

Last school year, more than 10,000 so-called “superintendent” suspensions were handed out, which all but guarantee, because of their length and severity, that a student will be swiftly assigned to a suspension center. Almost 90 percent of out-of-school suspensions were issued to black or Hispanic students last school year, a group that comprises 67 percent of the city’s students. Black students in particular are more likely to receive harsher punishments for the same infractions as their peers, according to the city’s Independent Budget Office.

But partly because of those disparities, de Blasio has championed school discipline reforms, and suspensions have plummeted by roughly a third since he took office. Most of those reductions, however, have come from less serious in-school suspensions. Over the same period, the number of out-of-school suspensions has dropped just 12 percent.

The offenses that lead to an out-of-school suspension range substantially, from throwing chalk and vandalizing a school with graffiti — to more serious offenses such as bringing a knife to school. Students have a right to a formal hearing and may contest the charges, but it can take up to a week for this review to take place.

“Schools have discretion to allow students to remain in the school pending a suspension hearing,” said Nelson Mar, an attorney at Bronx Legal Services. Yet “99 percent of the time they’re sent to the [suspension center].”

In theory, students can spend up to an entire school year in a suspension center, which are either tucked away in existing school buildings or at standalone sites. Year-long suspensions are extremely rare, though roughly a quarter of all out-of-school suspensions last school year ran for 30 school days or more. (About 7,700 students were assigned to a suspension center at some point last school year.)

To hear Salihou Touray tell it, his month-long stay at a Bronx suspension center when he was in sixth grade was a destabilizing experience. Fights often broke out in class, he said, sometimes multiple times a day. “They were really good at controlling fights — they knew it wasn’t something rare.”

Touray, who is now a senior in high school, said his teachers at M.S. 215 sent his suspension center packets of academic work for him to complete. Yet it was usually only enough to keep him occupied for an hour or two.

“I would finish everything in one bunch and then go to sleep,” he said. “Once you finish, they just don’t want you to disturb the class.”

Touray, who had been suspended for participating in a cafeteria brawl that was caught on camera, said the experience motivated him to keep his head down when he got back to his regular school. But he acknowledged it didn’t fundamentally change his behavior: He still got into fights and has since received multiple in-school suspensions.

Several other students and parents described similar experiences at suspension centers that often struggled or didn’t bother to make sure students kept up with their schoolwork.

Antione Strong, who was assigned to a Bronx suspension center for several days during his freshman year of high school, said he mostly spent the days filling out worksheets that weren’t related to his regular schoolwork. The staff, he said, were much more strict.

“You get locked into this room and have to sit in this confined spot all day,” said Strong, now 17. “It’s basically jail.”

Laisha Montero, a 16-year-old student at the Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management, said expectations were low when she reported to a suspension center last school year. During her English class, she said, “We didn’t really do classwork — we just colored.”

“Some classes had worksheets,” she said. “You had the choice to do it or not do it. It didn’t really matter.”

Some centers, though, seem to offer better instruction when families speak up. Saliha Saeed, whose sixth-grade son recently received an out-of-school suspension from Robert F. Wagner Middle School, said the suspension center offered academic work in core subjects during the mornings.

Still, she said that it was not coordinated with work from his middle school, and that students spent a chunk of time watching movies each afternoon. When she found out, she asked the staff to offer him individual instruction in math and reading and said she was encouraged that they were receptive.

“There’s definitely disruption in the curriculum,” Saeed said. But, she added, “I actually think he’s getting more attention there than at his home school.”

Revolving group of students

Staffers at suspension centers said they work hard to meet students where they are under difficult circumstances. They constantly receive new students from different schools who arrive working at widely varying grade levels. On top of that, most students are unhappy about their suspensions and may be in the midst of the emotionally fraught process of adjudicating the misbehavior that landed them a suspension in the first place.

In spite of those challenges, staffers say, suspension centers are welcoming and help get students back on track.

“They think they’re coming to this crazy place,” said Nixon Jeanty, a math teacher who is now a guidance counselor at a suspension center located in W.E.B. DuBois High School. But in reality, he said, “the suspension site is much quieter and safer than a traditional school in New York City.”

He described his suspension center as a place where students can get more individual attention. Students have daily check-ins, and teachers often offer targeted “mini-lessons” with small groups of students who are learning roughly the same material at their traditional schools. Every Friday, the school has an awards ceremony to recognize academic achievement or good citizenship. The school also uses “restorative” justice techniques where staff help students identify the root cause of conflicts and talk them through potential solutions.

“It’s a chance for students to see a fresh start,” he said. “A lot of times when students get suspended, they want to stay with us.”

But for students to enjoy some of those benefits, they have to first show up.

Montero said that because the classes at the suspension center felt like a waste of time, she stopped going. She estimates she stayed home for about half of her multi-week suspension, which Montero says she got for threatening a classmate.

Officials have acknowledged that attendance is a major problem at suspension centers. So far this school year, according to education department officials, just 58 percent of students actually showed up to their suspension center on average, compared with 92 percent citywide. After Chalkbeat inquired, the limited attendance information for the suspension centers on the education department’s website disappeared (though officials say it was not a response to this story).

Education officials didn’t respond to questions about whether there were consequences for suspension center absences, but advocates said absenteeism can further alienate students from school and make it harder to earn credits or keep up with coursework when they return to school.

There are a variety of reasons why attendance can be a problem. Students are frequently assigned to centers that are far from their home schools, and if multiple students are involved in a fight, for instance, they are rarely sent to the same center.

Staten Island only has two suspension centers, which can mean long ferry or bus rides to other boroughs.

Then there are students who stop showing up because there don’t seem to be any good reasons to stay.

“In my experience the kids who don’t find it to be a positive experience just don’t go,” said Cara Chambers, the director of the Legal Aid Society’s education advocacy project. Advocates said students who don’t show up often fall further behind on credits needed to graduate, or simply struggle to catch up on work when they return to their home school.

Montero, the student at Urban Assembly School for Emergency Management, says her suspension experience and her absenteeism had big ramifications.

“I felt like a failure that I got suspended and then failed all of my Regents,” she said, referring to exams that are required to graduate.

‘The suspensions set me back’

Although it can be difficult to establish the direct effects of a suspension, research generally suggests they can negatively impact student outcomes. One recent study focusing on New York City found suspensions led to students passing fewer classes, increasing their risk of dropping out, and lowering the odds of graduating.

Jason Manning, now 21 years old, experienced that first hand. In middle and high school he often got into fights earning him more suspensions than he can remember, landing him in a series of suspension centers across the Bronx.

“The suspensions set me back,” he said. And while suspensions weren’t his only problem —  he was also in and out of the criminal justice system — Manning said he struggled to accumulate credits while he bounced from suspension center to suspension center. Advocates said students don’t always get credit even for work they’ve completed there.

“I can’t earn the credits I was supposed to be earning so I would have to work 10 times harder,” he said. “And if I didn’t work that hard then it’s all over.” He ultimately dropped out.

That is an outcome Tim Lisante is trying to help students avoid.

Lisante was recently put in charge of the city’s suspension centers, and has lots of experience working with vulnerable students: He once ran a school on Rikers Island and has overseen programs for students who have fallen behind in school, suffer from drug addiction, or have children of their own.

In an interview, he said he is working to make sure officials are keeping careful track of each student in suspension centers. This year, for instance, they have started creating customized “blueprints” that include students’ strengths and goals.

“There is a correlation between being suspended and dropping out, and our job is to intervene and make sure that doesn’t happen,” Lisante said. In some cases, suspension centers will even encourage students to consider alternative schools geared toward students who have fallen behind instead of returning to their home school.

He also said that there is room for improvement. Asked about student reports that standards are low at suspension centers, Lisante acknowledged that the quality can be uneven.

“With the expectations piece, it’s something we’re always continuously working at,” he said. “It’s hard to build a school community when students didn’t choose to go there.”

Officials said they have launched a series of new initiatives to help improve suspension centers, including an advisory group that includes parents. And for first time this year, the department conducted surveys of students at suspension centers.

Asked for the results of those surveys, a department spokesman said they were “internal for the moment” and declined to release them.