Report: Discipline at Many Charter Schools Violates Students' Rights

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A review of discipline policies in New York City charter schools found a large number violated state and federal civil rights laws. A charter school spokesman disputed the report, saying it distorted the extent of the problem. 

Advocates for Children of New York looked at the policies for 164 of the city's nearly 200 charter schools. Staff attorney Paulina Davis said 107, or two thirds, of those reviewed allowed children to be removed for any infraction, even if it's as minor as littering or not wearing a uniform.

"It violates the student's right to due process," she explained. "And that includes the right to a penalty that is proportionate for the student's conduct."

Advocates for Children obtained the discipline policies through the state's Freedom of Information law and by looking at the schools' websites. In 82 schools, a child can be suspended or expelled for lateness, absence or cutting a class, a violation of state law. And 36 failed to include an opportunity to be heard prior to a short-term suspension, in violation of both the U.S. and New York State Constitutions.

Parents have complained for years about charter schools that take their strict discipline policies too far. WNYC has heard stories of students who were repeatedly sent to detention, but neither our newsroom nor the Independent Budget Office has been able to conclude the privately-managed public schools push out students.

The report released Thursday included accounts from families, including one involving a five-year-old who was expelled from kindergarten after receiving three suspensions in her first two months of school. The  charter did not provide the mother with written notice of the charges against her child and did not schedule a hearing.

When Advocates for Children intervened, the child was able to stay at the charter and receive special education services to improve her behavior in class. The group claims it's assisted an increasing number of parents of charter school students who were suspended and expelled, which led to its review of discipline policies. 

No individual charters or networks were named in the report.

"We don't want the focus to be on just one bad actor," Davis said. "But we want there to be system-wide ways to ensure that all charter schools have discipline policies that meet the requirements of the law."

James Merriman, chief executive officer of the New York City Charter School Center, said policies that don't meet applicable law should be amended.

"But it is tremendously unfair to suggest, as A.F.C. does, that a handful of one-sided anecdotes compiled over a long time are any evidence that charter schools are wholesale violating civil rights laws."

He said the report noted only one tenth of one percent of students in charters have lodged a complaint over the last 18 months, "a figure that strongly suggests that what problems there may be are extremely rare, isolated and the exception."

The report recommended all authorizing bodies ensure charter school discipline policies meet legal requirements, and urged state lawmakers to affirm that charter schools must follow state law.

Devora Kaye, spokeswoman for Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, said schools should have discipline policies that meet the needs of all students.

"We are committed to both improving school safety and reducing unnecessary suspensions across the school system,” she said.

SUNY's Charter School Institute had no comment. However, it does publish a resource book on student discipline and also gives training sessions on how charters should apply the rules to students with special needs and English Language Learners.