I Am My Brother’s Keeper: Why We Must Change the Code

In America, young men of color have been in a crisis for decades, if not centuries. As my father's dear friend Marian Wright Edelman says, our country suffers from a "cradle-to-prison pipeline": entrenched institutions and policies that predispose disadvantaged children, especially children of color, to a life of crime and poverty, instead of one that fosters an ability to reach their full potential in life. A child's school years are such a critical juncture in the timeline that other activists use the term "school-to-prison pipeline" to discuss all the hurdles children face in schools. A cornerstone of the school-to-prison pipeline has been overly punitive school discipline codes, with disciplinary action applied disproportionately to people of color.

In the past few years, the antiquated mentality of using stiff "tit-for-tat" punishment has been crumbling: the evidence is increasingly clear that the results are devastated lives and high prison populations, instead of better outcomes and lower crime. Government institutions are slowly taking notice. Former New York Gov. David Paterson began the long-overdue peeling back of the Rockefeller Laws' stiff minimum sentences. Current New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared in his 2014 State of the State speech that his agenda for this year includes raising the age at which a minor can be tried as an adult. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has begun steps to end the use of racial profiling in "stop and frisk." In the same vein, the current school discipline code must be changed if we are to improve student achievement.

As is the case with many punitive measures, suspensions have been heavily used and disproportionately applied to minorities. A 2007 investigative report by the Chicago Tribune found that the percentage of suspended students who were black was greater than their percentage of the overall student population in every state but Idaho. Astudy by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that nationally, one out of four black secondary-school students was suspended in the 2009-10 school year. The disparities are more than racial: one in five students with disabilities was suspended. This includes students with learning disabilities who may not fully grasp the nature of their actions. In addition, one in five English-language learners faced suspension. In contrast, white students without disabilities had a suspension rate of one in 16.

New York City's public-school system's suspension rates, as compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union, is similarly disconcerting. For the 2010-11 school year, the latest for which comprehensive data are available, black students accounted for almost half of suspensions despite being 29 percent of the entire student body. Students with special needs were twice as likely to be suspended than were general-education students.

Actions that can earn suspension are often minor, and the official school discipline code uses vague wording that can be broadly interpreted. In the 2010-11 school year, 40 percent of suspensions were for "physically aggressive behavior" and "defying authority" — which could be a punch in the face but also horseplay or talking back to a teacher. About half of suspensions were for nonviolent infractions such as talking loudly or using profane language.

And the current school discipline code is not some deeply entrenched system: in large part it stems from policies instituted when New York City gained control of public schools. In 2003, the administration announced new zero-tolerance policies, including a policy of "three strikes and you're out." The mayor claimed that suspensions for "cursing" and "disorderly behavior" would stop students from more serious, criminal behavior in the future. As a result, the number of suspensions more than doubled, from about 28,000 in the 2001-02 school year to almost 70,000 in 2011-12.

Another relatively recent "reform" contributing to high suspension rates was the 1998 transferring of school safety enforcement to the NYPD. Having police patrol the schools means what may have previously been a student arguing with a hall monitor can now warrant a criminal charge of resisting arrest or disorderly conduct, and gives officers the green light to use physical force. Many New York City schools now require students to enter the building through metal detectors, which may detect a weapon but are also set off by things like school supplies and hairpins. This all makes for a lower threshold to give a young person a criminal record that may hang over them the rest of their life. There is no strong evidence indicating that this "prisonizing" of schools has improved school safety, and some research suggests it makes schools less safe. In fact, infractions were declining in schools prior to the new policies.

I recognize that some people will always give the kneejerk response that easing the use of punishment for children will have the effect of countenancing or even encouraging misconduct. However, the evidence strongly suggests that zero-tolerance policies have the opposite of their intended effect: one study of students in Florida showed that a student suspended one time in ninth grade is twice as likely to drop out. Other studies suggest suspensions lead to poorer attendance rates and more aggressive behavior. Factors contributing to this may be lesser regard for schools or respect for authority stemming from the suspension.

Granted, someone might assert that the suspension was not the cause of the behavior, and that a student with poor academic performance is the type who would be suspended. However, the fact that students still exhibit bad behavior shows that suspension did not somehow turn things around. Also, consider what students experience when they are suspended. In New York City, students are supposed to attend alternative-learning centers, where they receive part-time instruction that is a little as two hours a day. Even then, only about half of suspended students show up. Instead of spending the day in class, they may be spending the day playing video games, leaving them days or weeks behind in the curriculum. Being out of school might also cut students off from vital support, like psychological services or even meals, which can be particularly devastating to low-income and special-needs students.

What, then, is the alternative to rampant suspensions to improve student performance? The answer is a different paradigm: restorative justice.

Restorative justice is based on the idea of stamping out the root causes of bad behavior instead of punishing young people for exhibiting such behavior. This is not alaissez faire attitude toward student conduct. If anything, it may require more action than a traditional suspension: restorative justice requires aggressive intervention in a student's life instead of suspensions that leave students to their own devices out of school. Instead of using harsh punishment that pushes our young people further down the school-to-prison pipeline, restorative justice looks to put an end to misconduct and poor performance.

The restorative justice approach requires a toolkit of resources and training. The full details need to be explained by people far smarter than I, but it includes ending overuse of suspensions and zero-tolerance policies; identifying behaviors that might lead to misconduct, in order to intervene preemptively; alternatives to suspension, like extra schooling and student engagement, instead of the complete absence of those things that comes from keeping them out of school; paring down the use of police to enforce school discipline; stronger parent-teacher and teacher-student relationship building; and good data collection to allow accountability and transparency. As we move forward, we must also continue research to find evidence-based approaches that improve student behavior. (Indeed, to date there unfortunately have been some "alternative discipline" schools that ultimately showed poor results.)

Even the Obama administration has recognized the need to change current school discipline: the Departments of Education and Justice have joined forces to encourage school districts to end zero-tolerance policies and overly punitive measures. In particular, this is a centerpiece of President Obama's "My Brother's Keeper" campaign to improve black male achievement. Unfortunately, obstructionist do-nothing Republicans in Congress have left the president's hands tied, forcing him to settle for modest executive action with voluntary private-sector resources. Given this, the push for school-discipline-code reform must take place at the local, grassroots level.

Luckily, New York City's new mayoral administration means New Yorkers have the ripest opportunity in two decades to make real change in schools. In his campaign platform, Mayor de Blasio promised to "build capacity in schools for positive discipline strategies." We must hold him and Education Chancellor Carmen Fariña accountable.

The time is now to shatter the school-to-prison pipeline and give all our young people a chance to succeed. Let's change the code.