City Task Force Recommends New Ways to Reduce School Suspensions


A fraction of schools accounts for an outsize portion of serious school punishments, according to a new report that recommends ways the city can combat that and other disparities in the way students are disciplined.

Although the number of suspensions and arrests in city schools continues to shrink, a tenth of the city’s schools administer 41 percent of all suspensions, and nearly half of all tickets were issued in 10 school buildings, the report said.

The report, released Thursday, was produced by a task force of city officials, advocates, and educators that City Hall established in February to make policy recommendations around school safety and discipline.

Harsh disparities also exist in terms of which students receive severe punishment. Even as overall school suspensions and arrests have dropped since 2012, the gap in suspension rates between black and Hispanic students and their white peers has widened, as has the gap between special-needs students and their non-disabled peers, the report says.

The report, which follows changes to the city’s school discipline code earlier this year, says the city should invest heavily in training and extra counselors for the 180 schools with the highest suspension and arrest rates, and create a plan to reduce the discipline disparities among student groups. It also says the city should reconsider the use of metal detectors in some schools and the schools chancellor should appoint a senior school-discipline advisor.

The mayor, chancellor, and police chief will review the recommendations and by September create an implementation timeline for any suggestions they decide to adopt, according to City Hall. In the meantime, the city is taking some immediate steps to reduce behavior problems in schools, such as installing discipline advisers in the new school support centers, hiring more guidance counselors and substance-abuse experts, and piloting a program where school safety agents will issue “warning cards” instead of tickets.

“Every child, in every neighborhood across the city, deserves a safe, supportive environment that empowers him or her to learn and succeed,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.

The task force, which included top-level city officials, represents the administration’s ongoing effort to steer the school system away from discipline policies that remove misbehaving students from school and potentially into the criminal-justice system. The federal government and other cities are also shifting away from severe penalties for nonviolent school offenses, following research that shows such “zero tolerance” policies tend to disproportionately affect students of color while often failing to improve student behavior.

In February, the city revised its school discipline policies by requiring principals to get approval before suspending students for insubordination, banning the use of handcuffs on children under age 12, and retraining school safety agents. At that time, the city also announced the 150-member task force to propose further changes, a move that appeased some advocates who had sought more drastic revisions.

Some of those advocates on Thursday cautioned that the city still must agree to adopt the panel’s recommendations and secure the funding to carry them out. However, they also praised the administration for commissioning the report, which they took as a sign of the city’s commitment to creating a discipline system with fewer disparities and harsh punishments for minor infractions.

“This administration is really owning that we have an issue with fairness and equity in school discipline,” said Kesi Foster, a coordinator for the advocacy group Urban Youth Collaborative, who was on the task force. “It’s an acknowledgement that there’s a long way to go, but there are solutions we can come up with that will have a major impact.”

Last school year, students with disabilities were suspended more than twice as often as their non-disabled peers, according to the report. More than 60 percent of in-school arrests involved black students, even though they make up less than 30 percent of the student population. White students, who account for about 15 percent of the school population, made up just 5 percent of arrests.

Advocates point out that some of the greatest racial disparities arise when students are suspended for infractions based on educators’ subjective judgments, such as “defying authority.” The February revisions required principals to obtain written approval before suspending students for that offense, but advocates have called for a complete ban. While the task force did not wade into the school discipline code for this report, members said it is likely to do so over the next few months before releasing a new set of recommendations in December.

The report found extraordinarily high suspension and arrest rates in a subset of schools. For example, while about 5 out of 100 students citywide receive suspensions, 63 out of 100 students are suspended at the 10 schools with the highest rates. At the 10 schools where special-needs students are suspended most often, 98 out of 100 students with disabilities receive suspensions. Students at high-suspension schools are more likely to miss class time and enter the court system, the report added.

Julie Zuckerman, the principal of Manhattan’s Castle Bridge School and a task force member, said the panel found that the high-suspension schools tended to have high poverty rates. She said that indicates that some schools struggle to manage the behavior of students who have been traumatized by poverty and neighborhood violence.

“You can’t punish them out of their trauma behaviors,” she said, adding that the task force and recent policy changes suggest the city recognizes that misbehaving students need support, not just discipline. “It’s a sea change.”

Chancellor Carmen Fariña has urged schools to shift to a “restorative justice” approach, where students are pushed to repair any harm they caused, sometimes by doing in-school service, while also receiving counseling to address the causes of their misbehavior. The City Council allocated $2.4 million in this year’s budget to fund those program, while the education department is spending $7 million to hire 63 new guidance counselors, officials said.

Advocates say the city will have to spend much more than that to adequately train and support educators in less-punitive approaches to discipline. But the report marks a major first step in that direction, some said.

“It’s really a credit to the administration that they’ve taken this seriously,” said New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman, a frequent critic of the city’s discipline policies who joined the task force.“I think we’re on a trajectory to really turn things around and be a leader nationwide.”