Christine Rodriguez vividly recalls her early school years. A native of Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, a working-class predominantly black and Latino section of New York City, her most vivid memories of elementary school consist of crammed classrooms with inadequate books, insufficient chairs, and the constant presence of the school-safety agent. (School Safety Agents, or SSAs, are New York Police Department officers assigned to K-12 campuses and charged with protecting students, campus staff, and visitors.) Now a college freshman at The New School studying education, Rodriguez rattles off with ease how school discipline shaped her K-12 education.
“We go to schools where there are more SSAs than guidance counselors. For us, it makes us feel that they expect us to end up in jail rather than in college,” said Rodriguez, 17. “I’ve been to public school my whole life. I’ve experienced the school-to-prison pipeline”—a term commonly used to describe the trend in which largely disadvantaged students are funneled into the criminal-justice system—“and criminalization (of students). And I’ve questioned why all of these things happen to our communities.”
Policymakers and educators, among others, are beginning to question the harsh discipline policies and practices that have in recent decades became popular in certain districts, too. Research shows that the reliance on punitive school discipline like suspensions, expulsions, and school arrests—“school pushout”—deprives students of learning time and takes the greatest toll on nonwhite students, students with disabilities, LGBT youth and other vulnerable student groups. Suspensions can even harm the education of non-misbehaving students, according to some research.
The data on the shortcomings of zero-tolerance discipline is clear and overwhelming, and with increasing regularity and in increasing numbers school districts and states are responding to calls for reform. A wide range of approaches to address discipline concerns with new policies and laws are being tested across the country—including in New York City—with varying degrees of success and enthusiasm. Many of these efforts are spurred by grassroots activists, as well as a growing research base suggesting that suspensions—particularly for minor infractions—are a flawed discipline strategy. A 2011 analysis by the advocacy group and think tank Child Trends found that majority of school suspensions are for nonviolent offenses. The analysis cites a study on one large, unnamed urban school district in Florida showing that attendance violations and disrespect were the most common reason for suspensions in the jurisdiction, while another study, this one included in a DOE report, found 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions were for slight infractions and misbehavior.
The impetus for the emphasis on suspensions—which is still used in many districts and charter-school networks such as KIPP—didn’t have a strong research basis, explained Dan Losen, the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. Instead, schools took a cue from the 1970s War on Drugs with its zero-tolerance approach, he said, and dramatically expanded the use of exclusionary discipline—taking students out of their everyday educational settings—with unanticipated outcomes.
In New York City, the Department of Education and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who pledged to address school discipline in his progressive-themed mayoral campaign, rolled out a highly anticipated plan in February, which was met with a somewhat lukewarm review. A diverse coalition of students, parents, community and children’s-rights groups had worked for many years to reform the district’s discipline code, heavily weighted toward harsh disciplinary actions like summonses, out-of-school suspensions and arrests. Civil-rights groups also joined the push as discipline reports showed students of color disproportionately punished by schools. A major sore point for many activists in the old discipline code was a policy allowing principals to suspend students for up to five days for “insubordination.” The revised rules only tweaked this policy, leaving intact the option to suspend and simply shifting approval from principals to the DOE.
Zeroing in on this regulation is well-founded: “Insubordination” is the leading cause of suspensions in middle and high schools. An analysis of DOE data by the New York Civil Liberties Union shows “serious infractions” accounted for fewer than 2 percent of reported suspensions in the 2013-14 school year and eliminating the rule for defying or disobeying authority “would reduce suspensions in New York City by almost one-fifth.”
Underwhelmed by the first phase of changes, advocates turned attention to the mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline, tasked with crafting recommendations that would form the basis for more substantive policy. As a senior at Bushwick School for Social Justice, Rodriguez joined de Blasio’s team, one of only two youth members. She had advocated for a change in the discipline code for four years as a youth leader with Make the Road New York, a grassroots group that aims to empower Latino and working-class communities by advocating for education, housing, and labor-rights issues. And said she had seen friends unfairly suspended.
The Leadership Team’s 10-point plan, released this July, includes reforms such as reducing racial disparities in suspensions and more transparent data collection. Looking ahead, the team’s recommendations leave Rodriguez cautiously optimistic.
“There’s a challenging side to it,” Rodriguez said, noting that the mayor’s budget didn’t invest in restorative-justice techniques, which Chalkbeat Tennessee has described as “a philosophy of resolution, discipline and reconciliation based on talking and learning the root cause of disciplinary issues, rather than depending solely on traditional methods of punishment such as detention of suspension.” Restorative justice—which has been adopted by a growing number of school districts—is considered an effective tool in reducing suspensions. As a result, activists mobilized and effectively lobbied the New York City Council to invest $2.4 million in 15 pilot schools. But for Rodriguez “not really investing in what’s important is conflicting for me.” The city council’s restorative-justice investment is vaguely described as an “allocation [that] will support the implementation of” the pilot program, “which will change the culture of the chosen 15 schools approach to school disciplinary policies.” It doesn’t detail what that expenses or changes that implementation will entail.
Resources are also a central theme in Los Angeles, where its relatively new and widely publicized discipline policy is causing consternation among some school staff. In 2013 Los Angeles Unified School District banned all suspensions for “willful defiance” – an ambiguous category, presumably similar to “insubordination,” used for everything from dress-code violations to eating and talking in class. As in New York, this catch-all category of minor offenses accounted for a significant percentage of all student suspensions in California and some of the largest racial disparities in discipline.
San Francisco and Oakland promptly followed L.A. in banning willful-defiance suspensions, and last September California became the first state to at least partially prohibit public schools schools from disciplining for willful defiance. The statewide ban is similar but less comprehensive than those enacted in some of the local jurisdictions: California public-school students can no longer be expelled for willful defiance and children in grades K-3 can no longer be suspended. Groups representing administrators and school boards opposed earlier California Assembly bills that would have expanded the new rule to older students. And the Los Angeles ban continues to roil teachers and school leaders two years after implementation, even as early indications show California has reduced suspensions. According to the Los Angeles Times, however, some observers have questioned the integrity of the suspension data and certain principals’ efforts to address disciplinary problems, citing allegations that some administrators have sent children home without officially suspending them; such assertions raise questions about the actual effectiveness of the LAUSD approach.
Isabel J. Morales, a social-studies teacher at Los Angeles High School of the Arts, cheered the new policy, anticipating it would reduce the frequency at which students get into trouble because of teacher biases. But teacher friends and colleagues had a much different reaction. “I haven’t heard anything positive about it,” Morales said. “The words they’ve used to describe it are ‘crazy’ … ‘zoo’ … ‘madhouse’ … people are just unsure and feel powerless.”
Morales, whose school is very small and reports few to no suspensions and expulsions, pointed to a misunderstanding of what willful defiance is, poor implementation of the new policy, inadequate training, and a shared commitment to the philosophy behind the ban as the source of most staff dissatisfaction.
“It was like, ‘Here’s our new policy’...[teachers] still have their same biases, and now they’re extra angry because their one method was to kick [insubordinate students] out, and there’s just extra hostility” because they’re banned from using it. And Morales said that one of the key tools she finds most effective is missing in the L.A. plan: student input. “When teachers are resistant my fallback is to bring in student voice. How they (students) feel when they’re having a bad day and acting a little weird and feel disrespected.” She said it’s really helpful for teachers to hear students’ perspectives to “rethink it.”
Developing a school culture in which suspension is the last resort rather than the first is achievable, said Morales, using her own school—which serves a low-income, mostly Latino student population—as a prime example. “You can find other ways of addressing the problem with the same students everyone else teaches,” she stressed. At Garfield High School in East Los Angeles the same thinking applies, where graduation rates and academic outcomes appear to have improved as out-of-school suspensions declined. The Garfield school team took suspensions “off the table” and transitioned to restorative conflict resolution, recognizing and rewarding positive student behaviors, and stronger ties with parents and the community.
Dan Losen, of the Civil Rights Project, sees this approach—a shift away from zero tolerance toward constructive tactics that focus on encouraging kids to stay in school and reflect on their actions—taking hold in a growing number of school jurisdictions and states. The reason becomes more obvious as the numbers sink in: According to U.S. Department of Education civil-rights data, America’s children lost almost 18 million days of instruction due to suspensions.
Starting this school year, Miami-Dade County Public Schools eliminated out-of-school suspensions as part of an effort to redirect its discipline policies, a move that Losen said is “huge” and has high potential. Other locations he’s watching include Maryland, where extensive changes to the state’s discipline policies are underway, and Denver, whose leading role in the elimination of exclusionary discipline makes it a key guidepost for other districts striving to do away with zero-tolerance tactics.
Trends like these make youth activists like Rodriguez hopeful. “Suspensions are the easy way out. All you have to do is suspend a student and they’ll be gone for up to a week,” she said. “But that doesn’t tackle the root of the problem. When a teacher takes a student out and talks to us, it shows us they care. It shows community.”
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