DSC-NY and CUNY Law Students Discuss Denial of Students’ Right to an Education through Zero Tolerance Discipline

On Tuesday November 1st, the Dignity in Schools Campaign NY (DSC-NY) and CUNY School of Law hosted a panel discussion, “Suspended Opportunities: The Effect of Zero Tolerance Discipline Policies in New York City Public Schools” at the CUNY law school campus in Queens. The goals of the panel were to generate a dialogue about the effects of school suspensions and to discuss disciplinary alternatives. Professor Susan Markus, a CUNY faculty member who also serves as an Impartial Hearing Officer, moderated the panel. The panelists included Sarah Arvey, a middle school teacher in Queens and member of Teachers Unite, Chima Agwu, a high school senior at Belmont Preparatory High School in the Bronx and leader at Sistas and Brothas United, Johanna Miller, Assistant Advocacy Director at New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), and Matthew Delaforte, who works with special education students and charter schools. The panel was attended by law students, Hearing Officers who oversee school suspension cases in NYC, and other city officials and allies.

Professor Markus began the discussion by asking the panelists about their experiences with suspension. Teacher Sarah Arvey described suspensions as “lose-lose situations for everyone involved” because the root causes of the suspension are never addressed or resolved by removing a student from the classroom and/or school. High school senior Chima Agwu agreed with other panelists, stating from personal experience that many students are often suspended for minor infractions with very detrimental effects on students. Chima explained “I’m losing a lot of my friends… because of these suspensions” and because students feel “so oppressed” by zero tolerance discipline policies, many do not return to school and do not graduate. After discussing their experiences with suspension, the panelists were then asked to describe what they thought were the main obstacles to overcoming zero tolerance discipline policies. Johanna Miller from NYCLU explained that “the history of zero tolerance discipline policies is deeply rooted in a fear of young people” that in reality is misguided as rates of violence of among youth have declined steadily over the past few decades. Panelists also pointed to the racism that exists in our schools, communities, and laws. Sarah Arvey described the systemic racism embedded in our education system which leads to Black and Latino students being suspended at higher rates than white students. In addition to high rates of suspensions, Chima pointed out that in schools serving low-income Black and Latino students, there are more metal detectors, police officers, and harsher discipline policies overall. He described these schools as prisons where students are treated like criminals, not as young people who want to learn.

Finally panelists shared their recommendations for alternative discipline policies. Panelists explained that students need support in order to address the initial causes of conflict and disruption so that students do not continue to be suspended for minor infractions. Panelists agreed that suspended students also need more support when returning back to school after a suspension so that they do not fall behind. Panelists described restorative justice, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and conflict resolution programs as key to reducing suspensions, and Chima described his positive experiences as a peer mediator in his school. Johanna argued that these positive alternatives are more necessary than ever, because “zero tolerance has turned out to be a failed experiment…and a serious infringement on students’ right to an education.” The panel succeeded in presenting the urgency for such alternative policies as current discipline policies are discriminatory, are unsuccessful in resolving conflict, and continue to push students out of schools.