Are NYC schools underreporting suspensions? A new report suggests it’s possible.

In the wake of new discipline policies that make it harder to remove students from school, reported suspensions have plummeted 30% since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office.

But juking suspension statistics could be a bigger part of the story than policymakers have acknowledged, according to a report released Tuesday by the conservative-learning Thomas Fordham Institute. Nearly 57% of New York City teachers believe underreporting by school administrators is at least somewhat responsible for the decline in out-of-school suspensions in their school, a higher share than the national average.

That finding, however, comes with important caveats: The survey includes 1,200 teachers across the country, including over 200 in New York City, but the question about unreported suspensions was limited to a smaller subset of 92 city educators, making that specific finding less robust. Many educators said suspensions had not declined in their school, and so weren’t included in this aspect of the survey. Teachers also offered a range of other reasons for falling suspensions, including a significant share who point to improved student behavior, or a higher tolerance for misconduct. 

Still, the report raises questions about how and whether shifts in discipline policies are trickling down to schools, especially as the city continues to limit suspensions in favor of less punitive models.

Education department spokeswoman Miranda Barbot emphasized that the department is “expanding training so that every middle and high school teacher can effectively use restorative approaches in their classroom, and every elementary school teacher can help their students develop social-emotional skills.”

Chalkbeat is interested in learning more from educators about how student discipline policies are playing out in your classrooms, and what you think of the city’s latest push for alternatives to suspensions. You can share your experience with us here.

In the meantime, here are three takeaways about how New York City educators feel about school discipline based on the Fordham report. (You can read the full NYC teacher responses from the survey here.)

Underreporting could be widespread

Phillippa Bishop-Alexander, who taught kindergarten in the Bronx a few years ago, said underreporting suspensions was common at her school, especially for incidents such as biting or kicking.

“There were situations where a student was sent home, and it was not logged in the system as a removal or suspension,” she said, noting that she believes administrators feel pressure from their supervisors to keep suspension rates low. 

The Fordham report suggests that a little more than half of city educators from schools that saw declines in suspensions believe underreporting is at least partly responsible for a drop in suspensions — and more than a quarter said it was “completely” or “mostly” responsible for the decrease. (The questionnaire asks teachers to respond based on their experiences from the 2017-18 school year.)

Outside pressures of all kinds could be affecting the numbers. Last year, for example, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza attributed a spike in suspensions to educators “now reporting everything” after a fatal school stabbing — suggesting that prior to that, underreporting was an issue. Importantly, most teachers felt other factors were also contributing to the decline, including better student behavior, a higher tolerance for student misconduct, and alternative approaches to student discipline. Barbot noted that failing to report incidents violates department rules and can lead to disciplinary action.

Educators like Bishop-Alexander suggested there might be fewer incentives to leave incidents off official reports if teachers received more training about how to use alternative methods of conflict resolution. Despite her school’s efforts to promote alternatives, “it was very disjointed,” she said. “I had to look outside the school for a lot of the resources and research that I was using in my classroom.”

Teachers think ‘restorative’ approaches are effective… and suspensions are, too

By a wide margin, educators said that a range of less punitive approaches are effective, such as mediation, encouraging students to talk through problems in groups (a form of conflict resolution associated with restorative justice), and trying to get at the root cause of disruptive behavior.

Roughly 70% of teachers said restorative practices are at least somewhat effective — and over 84% of teachers said systematically rewarding good behavior is an effective approach to school discipline. 

Despite the high marks for these methods, which officials recently announced are expanding citywide, a large share of teachers also say suspensions shouldn’t be taken off the table. About 41% reported that out-of-school suspensions are used too little. And 55% of teachers said the benefits of in-school suspensions outweigh the costs. 

David Griffith, one of the report’s co-authors, said the idea that teachers seem to support suspensions and alternative discipline methods validates the idea that teachers “don’t see it as an either-or” — a finding that he said is consistent with responses from across the country.

“There’s nothing wrong with restorative justice,” Griffith said, but “everybody needs an emergency brake.”

Alternatives to suspensions are spotty

The lionshare of the city’s teachers (71%) said school discipline policy is inconsistently enforced at their individual schools. Over one-third of teachers also say various alternatives to suspensions — including rewarding good behavior and “trauma-informed practices” — are used erratically.

Melissa Dorcemus has seen the difference firsthand between schools with predictable policies and those that struggle with consistency. When she worked at a Bronx middle school three years ago, different teachers had different behavior expectations, and their alternatives to suspensions were largely “in name only.”

That made her skeptical of policies designed to make it harder to suspend students. “I was like, ‘no, I need suspensions.’ I could think of kids where I didn’t know what else to do with them.”

Now she teaches at Manhattan’s New Design High School and sees how decent training and a culture built around talking through problems with students before they flare up can make a huge difference. Even though she supports the city’s efforts to reduce suspensions, she argues adequately training educators has to be the first step.

“If you mandate reducing suspensions first, you’re going to get a lot of shady behavior,” she said. “I think you have to mandate the support first.”