Advocates Ask Candidates For School Discipline Climate Change

After years of pressing Mayor Bloomberg to make school discipline fairer, students and advocates are turning their attention to the candidates seeking to replace him.

At a rally outside City Hall just before a City Council hearing on school climate Monday, students and advocates the Dignity in Schools Campaign called on the next mayor to take a different approach to school discipline. They want a model that relies less on suspensions and other punitive measures, and also ensures that black and Latino students are not disproportionately affected by school discipline.

“We need a mayor that is going to implement and fund restorative justice in our schools,” said Benia Darius, a junior at Bushwick School for Social Justice. “I am soon going to start my training as a peer mediator, and I’m going to be part of the change in my school. But what I want to know today as a student is what you as mayoral candidates are going to do to change these issues in our schools?”

According to Department of Education data, the number of students arrested in schools during the last quarter of 2012 was nearly 50 percent lower than during the same period in 2011. But black and Latino students made up the same proportion of arrested students in each year: 93 percent.

All of the leading Democratic candidates either attended the rally or sent representatives. Bill Thompson, the former school board president and comptroller, was there from start to finish and signaled that he would support the Dignity in Schools Campaign.

“I want to be the mayor who works along, yes, with our students, but also with education professionals to make sure our environments are safe but that students and particularly students of color aren’t being targeted, aren’t being singled out for suspensions and arrests,” Thompson said.

Other candidates said they were sympathetic to the issues the students raised. After the rally, Comptroller John Liu, another mayoral candidate, drew a sharp line between the racial breakdown of students who are suspended and arrested and the Bloomberg administration’s “stop and frisk” policy.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Liu said. “You see the disparities in the school suspensions and disciplinary actions disproportionately against students of color, and you see things like racial profiling and stop and frisk that are clearly tilted disproportionately way against people of color.”

“It’s time to end this disparity and ensure that students — regardless of race, income, or disability — are provided with positive approaches to discipline that help keep them in the classroom and off the street,” Public Advocate Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

In a statement and a column in the Huffington Post Monday, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn highlighted recent changes to the Department of Education’s discipline code, which she noted had followed the council’s 2009 Student Safety Act. She also said there are now more supports to help students before they misbehave. (Like the rest of the Democratic candidates, she supports “community schools” that offer counseling and other services alongside academic instruction.)

“But there is still more to be done,” she wrote in the column, which she co-authored with Robert Jackson, the council’s education committee chair.

Later, Jackson pushed Kathleen Grimm, a Department of Education deputy chancellor, and the commanding officer of the NYPD’s School Safety Division Brian Conroy, to explain the disproportionate arrest and suspension rates among black and Latino students.

“NYPD and/or DOE, in your opinion, why is that, if you have an opinion?” Jackson said. “And what do you think we can do to reduce those numbers?”

“Clearly none of our disciplinary actions taken based on race or creed or gender or any classification,” Grimm said. “We are as troubled as you that this number seems to be sticking and we aren’t moving this down. I think through additional supports and training and lessons learned through Young Men’s Initiative, we have the ability to address this problem.”

In testimony during the hearing, the head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which supports the Dignity in Schools Campaign, called on council members to reduce the amount of information that the Department of Education can redact from its regular school safety reports.