By the numbers

School suspensions fall sharply, but continue to land most heavily on black students

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter

The number of school suspensions fell by 17 percent last academic year as the city shifts away from that more punitive approach to discipline, yet schools continued to suspend black students and those with disabilities at disproportionately high rates.

Schools gave out about 9,000 fewer suspensions in 2014-15 than in the previous academic year, according to city education department data released Friday. In addition, arrests by school security officers dropped by 27 percent, and summonses fell by 15 percent, officials said.

The declines come as the city has ordered educators to rely less on removing disruptive students from school and more on addressing the causes of their misbehavior.

But while schools suspended fewer students from almost every group, certain groups continue to be suspended at disproportionate rates.

About 52 percent of suspensions went to black students, even though they represent just 28 percent of students — a wide gap that has narrowed slightly. Students with disabilities received 38 percent of all suspensions, though they make up just 18 percent of the city’s students. That disparity grew somewhat since last year.

Meanwhile, just 7.4 percent of suspensions went to white students, who make up 15 percent of city students. Hispanic students, who make up over 40 percent of students, accounted for 36 percent of suspensions.

The imbalances come amid a national discussion about racial discrimination fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement and increased scrutiny of police presence in schools.

Kesi Foster, a coordinator for the advocacy group Urban Youth Collaborative, applauded the overall reduction in suspensions, which he said reflects the education department’s pressure on schools to move away from that approach. However, he said the department will not be able to end the disparities between student groups without making that an explicit component of its discipline policies and trainings.

The school system must “struggle with those deep questions about racial inequity if we’re going to close the discipline gap,” said Foster, who is a member of a city task force on school discipline.

Suspensions have plummeted since 2012, when the city began publicly reporting those numbers. During that time, the education department also revised its discipline code to emphasize alternatives to suspension.

The department made additional changes to the code this year that required principals to get approval before suspending students for insubordination, and banned a more serious type of suspension for “minor physical altercations.” However, the number of suspensions was already on the decline last year before the new policies went into effect in April.

This summer, the discipline task force issued a report saying that a tenth of the city’s schools give out 41 percent of all suspensions. The 150-member task force recommended that the city invest in extra training and counselors for those schools and create a plan to reduce the discipline disparities among student groups, among other suggestions.

The mayor’s office promised to announce an implementation timeline for the recommendations it would adopt by the start of the school year. However, an education department spokesman said Friday that the city is still reviewing the recommendations.

In addition to revising the discipline code, the city has offered conflict resolution training to school employees and hired more guidance counselors, the spokesman said. The city is also piloting a program where school safety agents will issue “warning cards” instead of tickets.

“While we have taken important steps in the right direction, reducing the need for suspensions and keeping our schools safe remains one of my top priorities — particularly for our black and Hispanic students and our students with special needs,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and we are working tirelessly toward that end.”

First Person

I’ve spent years fighting for integrated schools in New York City. I’m also Asian-American. Mayor de Blasio, let’s talk.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Parents weigh in on a proposal to integrate District 2 middle schools by making them enroll students with a range of academic abilities earlier this year.

Dear Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Carranza,

I write as a school integration advocate, racial justice activist, public school mother, and a first-generation Japanese-American.

I have spent years working with other parents to make New York City’s public school system more equitable, facilitating conversations on school integration as a means to dismantle racism in our society. I believe it is past time we address the segregation in New York City public schools, and I agree that something must be done with the specialized high schools — which currently admit few black and Latinx students — as part of this work.

However, I am concerned about how you’ve rolled out this proposal without including the people it will affect.

As opposition mounts and the Asian communities across the city mobilize against your plan, I wanted to share some thoughts so that you are better prepared to create a meaningful dialogue on perhaps the most complex part of the school integration work.

I would like to ask three things from you. One is to please see us Asian New Yorkers for who we are.

There is no question that Asians have been (and many still are) marginalized and disempowered. If one learns the history of Asians in the U.S., she understands that our past is filled with violence and struggles. Our history is steeped in discriminatory policies at federal and local levels, including the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment. We were only given the “model minority” status because doing so was convenient for domestic and international politics.

We are also a very diverse group of people, representing more than four dozen countries. This fact alone makes it very difficult to make any general statements about us.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we should be ignored in this conversation or inaccurately lumped in with whites. High average test scores do not automatically equal privilege, and they are certainly no match for white supremacy — a concept many self-proclaimed “non-racists” are unable to recognize. This lack of understanding makes it nearly impossible to identify Asians as oppressed people of color.

The second thing I ask is to bring all of us – whites, blacks, Latinx, and Asians (East, South, and Southeast Asians) – together to develop solutions to integrate our schools.

The unfortunate fact is that our city is not typically equipped to have productive conversations about race and racism. And if racism of white against black/Latinx is difficult to grasp for some, understanding how Asians fit into this discourse is even harder.

Our position is so complicated, even racial justice activists – including Asians themselves – often do not know how to talk about us. When we are not ignored, we are perceived as “outsiders,” even if this is the only country some of us know.

But there is no reason we can’t work together. History tells us that Asians have been fighting for civil rights alongside black and Latinx people for decades, even after the white system began using us as pawns. Even in the highly contentious affirmative action arena, in which some Asians have been co-opted by white anti-affirmative action groups, many Asians remain in favor of affirmative action and are continuing to fight for equity for all people of color.

Finally, to make that work, I ask that you adopt a “bottom up and top down” approach, in which community conversations and shared decision-making happen under your leadership. Such a framework has been proposed by a group of advocates, including students.

The Department of Education has already hosted a series of town halls to solicit ideas on diversifying our schools, and has done a good job of getting people to come out. However, on this proposal for the specialized high schools, there was no consultation with affected communities, including students.

Let’s practice what we preach and have an inclusive, participatory process. Let’s not ignore the Asian community when we talk about school integration, and let’s specifically include Asian voices — parents and students — in this discussion about specialized schools and all schools. Let’s have real conversations aimed at uniting those who have been marginalized, not dividing them. And let’s explain how these decisions will be made and why.

This is an opportunity to start a conversation that should have happened when Brown v. Board of Education was decided 64 years ago, and to create more equitable, integrated schools. Let’s make sure we do it right.

Shino Tanikawa is the vice president of District 2’s Community Education Council and a school integration advocate.

What's Your Education Story?

Bodily fluids and belly buttons: How this Indianapolis principal embraces lessons learned the hard (and gross) way

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Christine Rembert at the Teacher Story Slam, April 19, 2018.

For Christine Rembert, principal at Francis W. Parker School 56 in Indianapolis Public Schools, education is the family business.

Her dad teaches chemistry to adults, and her mom is a retired high school English teacher. So it made sense that Rembert, too, would be an educator. As she has transitioned from a teacher to an administrator, she’s done a lot of learning — in fact, she considers herself not the person with all the answers, but the “lead learner” in her school.

And it hasn’t always been glamorous. Dealing with bodily fluids, for example, is a regular part of her day. As a new principal, she confronted that head-on in an anecdote she recounted in a recent story slam sponsored by Chalkbeat, Teachers Lounge Indy, WFYI Public Media, and the Indianapolis Public Library.

Here’s an excerpt of her story. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity:

The last story I have to tell happened in my first few months as a school administrator, and I’ve learned many things from this story. I was sitting at my desk and doing some work, and my behavior person came in.

That’s the person who’s kind of the bouncer in the school who manages all the naughty kids. So we had that person, and she came in, and she was a tall woman — over 6 feet tall. She looked down at my desk, and she said: Do you want me to tell you the story first?

And I, in all my brand-new administrator wisdom, said no. And she goes, well, I have a teacher and a kid, and we need to talk to you.

And I was like, OK come on in!

Well, note to self: When the behavior person says do you want me to tell you the story, you need to say yes right then.

Because the reason is you have to not laugh.

So the teacher came in, and she has a Clorox wipe, and she’s (frantically wiping her nose). And I was like, OK, that’s weird. She sat down, and the child came in, and she was kind of sad.

I proceeded to hear the story whereby the child had stuck her finger into her (wet) belly button and then held it up to the teacher’s nose and said: Smell my finger.

Public education is like living in a fraternity house.

Check out the video below to hear the rest of Rembert’s story.

You can find more stories from educators, students, and parents here.