Luke was supposed to receive his high school diploma this year, but, like many others, he did not. A 16-year-old black student, he was placed in special education with a label of "emotional disturbance." Luke was attending a high school in District 75, the citywide district for special education, where students with disabilities are isolated from their peers without disabilities. It was not where Luke was supposed to be.
Luke’s placement at the school set off a series of events that led to his being arrested and leaving school. While all students are different, Luke’s experience reflects that of other students in New York City and across the nation who are pushed out of school by degrading learning environments, inadequate services and curriculum, and harsh suspensions, expulsions and arrests. Students are too often treated like criminals in a school environment that favors punishment and exclusion over providing the support and interventions needed to protect students’ human rights to education and dignity.
The numbers give some indication of this. In New York City, for example, the number of zero-tolerance infractions in the Discipline Code has doubled since 2001, according to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the number of suspensions in a given school year has increased by more than 250 percent, reaching more than 73,000 in 2008-2009. Since 2000, the number of school safety officers, the report found, has increased from 3,200 to over 5,000, but there are still only 3,000 guidance counselors.
From High School to Hiding
Luke, according to the Individualized Education Program that all special education students have, should have attended an inclusive high school, where students with disabilities learn in classrooms with other students. Studies have found that this generally leads to better academic performance and behavior. But at the last minute, the Department of Education informed Luke’s mother that the school he was slated to attend was too crowded. The department sent Luke to the District 75 school, South Richmond High School on Staten Island, where he faced many difficulties. Rather than receive counseling and support, Luke encountered school safety officers who were derogatory and judgmental, and teachers who escalated conflicts rather than mediated them.
On Jan. 15, 2010, Luke had a verbal dispute with a student in class, and his teacher asked him to leave the room. On his way out, another teacher told Luke he couldn’t be in the hallway. Luke explained that he wasn’t allowed back in class and tried to push past the teacher. Luke and his mother have said that the teacher then pinned Luke against the wall prompting a school safety officer to physically restrain and arrest Luke, leaving visible marks in the process.
After waiting nine months for his case to be processed in court, Luke was put on probation. Then a year after his arrest, Luke tested positive for marijuana, violating his probation, and was placed in a residential treatment center where he and his mother say he did not receive adequate services and support. This spring he was supposed to return to court for the probation violation, but for fear of being re-arrested, he ran away. He was missing for over three weeks, during which time the police refused to file a missing person’s report. Although his mother has since made contact, Luke continues to hide in fear.
"The school system provides no alternatives, they just lock these kids up, and this is not a solution. You’re dealing with kids who have other issues and need support," Luke’s mother said.
Viewing Students as Criminals
Schools often target students they deem "problematic" and repeatedly suspend them, even for minor infractions. The student then misses school again and again for extended periods of time, and if the underlying needs and sources of conflict are not addressed, falls behind academically. He or she is ultimately pushed out. In some cases, students receive long-term suspensions for up to 90 days at alternative schools and never return to a regular setting. In other cases a student gets so far behind that he or she simply stops coming to school, or a counselor or other staff member tells the student he needs too many credits to graduate and should just leave or get a GED.
This approach has the greatest effect on students of color with special needs, like Luke. In New York City, students with disabilities are four times more likely to be suspended than students without disabilities, the civil liberties report found, and black students, who make up 33 percent of the population, received 53 percent of suspensions over the last decade. In some cases, like Luke’s, schools skip suspensions altogether and resort to arresting a student.
Many of these suspensions arise from zero tolerance policies or practices, some of which are in the Discipline Code, and others that schools put into effect themselves. In these cases, schools automatically suspend or expel students for certain infractions — fighting or drug use for example. The student has no opportunity to explain extenuating circumstances or to have his or her overall record considered.
A recent study by the Council of State Governments on school disciplinary practices in Texas underscores just how detrimental suspension and expulsion can be. Over 60 percent of all students between grades 7 and 12 in Texas were suspended at least once. Students who are suspended or expelled are six times more likely to be held back at least one grade, and five times more likely to drop out than their peers, according to the report. This study is consistent with dozens of others demonstrating that punitive discipline disproportionally targets students of color, students with disabilities, and gay and lesbian students.
When we consider alternatives to such draconian discipline we are talking not just about reducing suspensions and student arrests, but also about combating the school push-out crisis, eliminating discrimination, giving students every opportunity to succeed academically, shifting school culture altogether, and focusing on our students as human beings. An array of approaches, known collectively as restorative practices, is beginning to catch on across the country as a positive alternative.
Restorative practices include "fairness committees" and "restorative circles" in which students and educators trained in conflict resolution bring all the parties involved in a dispute together to discuss how each person was affected by an incident and to work together to identify a solution that will prevent the conflict from happening again. Solutions can include community service, mediation or attending conflict resolution workshops. This offers students a chance to take responsibility for their actions, restore relationships and repair harm done to the school community.
Schools across the nation have found success using restorative practices and other positive approaches, including Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, a process to improve the school environment. In Denver, for example, after the schools integrated restorative practices into the district-wide discipline code, suspensions fell by 40 percent, and police tickets issued to students dropped by 68 percent.
Recently, due to the organizing and advocacy of communities across the country through efforts like the Dignity in Schools Campaign, the federal Departments of Education and Justice announced the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, an inter-agency effort to address the "school-to-prison pipeline" and support positive alternatives. Just two weeks later in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced his Young Men’s Initiative to improve opportunities for young black and Latino men, who are disproportionately undereducated, incarcerated and unemployed.
There are certainly many factors to consider in the fight to end school pushout, but the bottom line is that the school community, student behavior and academic success are inextricably linked. We must reduce suspensions and student arrests, and implement positive alternatives so that students feel valued and are not removed from school for extended periods of time.
No students should avoid school because they are afraid of going to jail, but that’s exactly what Luke and many others must do. For Luke, what started as a verbal argument with a fellow student in class escalated into arrest and pushout. If Luke’s underlying academic and behavioral needs had been met, and a conflict with another student had been resolved through a restorative response, he could have completed the school year, attended summer school and earned his diploma.
Emily Shaw and Refat Shoshi Chowdhury are with the Dignity in Schools Campaign – New York. Liz Sullivan is with the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative.