Streams

On Discipline Students Seek More Middle Ground

Friday, June 07, 2013 - 07:08 AM

WNYC

Although the public school discipline code lists a menu of possible guidance interventions -- such as parent outreach, counseling or conflict resolution -- none is required prior to suspension. Advocates and students told education officials Thursday night that the city needed to change its approach to discipline in the schools.

Although the public school discipline code lists a menu of possible guidance interventions -- such as parent outreach, counseling or conflict resolution -- none is required prior to suspension. Advocates and students told education officials Thursday night that the city needed to change its approach to discipline in the schools.

"It's time for the D.O.E. to move away from viewing positive discipline as an experiment, and commit to making it a part of students' everyday life," said Samantha Pownall, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union.

She spoke at the public hearing to review the discipline code for the 2013-2014 school year, an annual process required by state law. Department of Education officials said they would first listen to the comments and written testimony before deciding later this summer whether to require guidance interventions.

Elayna Konstan, chief executive officer of the Office of Safety and Youth Development, said the current discipline code outlined several steps of guidance intervention before suspension.

"Our code is very clear on progressive, positive discipline and a ladder of referral and gives lots of ways in which to do that," she said.

And many New York City schools do employ restorative approaches to discipline, but advocates and the students asked for stronger language so that these alternatives to suspension are applied more evenly across the school system.

A report released by a blue-ribbon task force, led by the state's former top judge, made a similar argument, saying suspensions increased the chances of students leaving school altogether while rarely addressing the root issues that led to the behavior problems in the first place.

Liz Sullivan, Human Right to Education Program Director with the non-profit National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, said too many students were suspended for relatively minor behavioral issues such as writing graffiti, or pushing another student.

"We can't wait another year while students continue to be suspended for these minor infractions," she said.

She said the catch-all category of "defying authority" contributed to disproportionately high rates of suspensions among students of color. Black students comprised about 28 percent of the student population but received 53 percent of suspensions last year.

Sullivan's organization is part of the Dignity in Schools coalition, which promotes alternatives to suspension and arrest. The coalition organized a group of current and former students to attend and speak at the hearing. Many expressed that their voices were not being heard at their schools.

"If a student is doing bad -- if he's messing up in school, if he's cutting, if he's getting into fights and stuff, there's obviously a reason for it," said Nilesh Vishwasrao, a former student at Flushing High School who is now 20.

"There are kids that get suspended for arguments or fights or whatever when at home they could be having abuse or they could be going through some sort of mental stress," he said. "There's always a reason but they're not given a chance to speak about that. There's no in-depth conversation between guidance counselor and student, or any faculty, really."

He said he received repeated suspensions in high school for offenses like chewing gum or talking back to school safety agents, alongside more serious offenses like fighting. Repeated suspensions made him even less invested in school, he said, to the point where he would skip class repeatedly. He left high school in his fourth year in 2010 without graduating.

The D.O.E. has credited including more alternatives to suspension and an emphasis on positive school culture with a decline in suspensions. The total number of suspensions dropped last school year to fewer than 70,000, and early data released this spring showed a decline in suspensions of more than 20 percent.

The D.O.E. will continue taking written feedback on the school discipline code through June 20.

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