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Black, Hispanic and special needs students disproportionately suspended in New York City schools

MARYAM ABDUL-ALEEM Special to the AmNews | 4/21/2012, 10:07 p.m.

The Student Safety Act, which requires the New York City Department of Education to provide information on the number of suspensions in public schools, shows Black and Latino students and students with special needs representing a disproportionate number of suspensions in the 2010-2011 school year.

New York City Councilman Robert Jackson, chairman of the Education Committee, said, "Student suspensions are at an all-time high, with Black students and children of special needs hardest hit."

In 2002-2003, there were 31,879 suspensions-the same year mayoral control was implemented. In 2010-2011, the total number of suspensions was 73,441, a 130 percent increase from the 2002-2003 school year.

The DOE data released on Oct. 31 showed that although special needs students made up 31 percent of suspensions in 2010-2011, the students make up only 15 percent of the student body population.

The report also showed 65 percent of students suspended were males. Black student suspensions represented more than half of suspended, with nearly 53 percent of Black students suspended in 2010-2011, although Black students make up only 30 percent of the student body in New York City schools.

The statistics raised questions on the topic of race, the use of suspension as a punitive measure for minor offenses and the use of alternative measures for disciplinary actions in the learning environment.

Advocates point out that "punitive practices have a negative impact on a student's academic performance and lead more students, particularly students of color, into contact with the juvenile and criminal justice systems," said Jackson at the Nov. 30 hearing on the first report on student suspensions released by the DOE.

"Why do you think Black students are being suspended at such a high rate?" he asked. "Is it because they're Black? Is it because of racial discrimination? Is it because they're more troubled? Is it because they're more intimidating to teachers because they're bigger?"

Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm of the division of operations at the DOE said at the hearing, "We acknowledge that there are several groups that are disproportionately represented. Why they are disproportionately represented, I'm not sure, but I think what we need to do is to address all of these suspensions...and I do not believe that these children are being suspended because of any racial situation."

The DOE reports that major crime is down in city schools, with violent crime down more than 45 percent, creating a safer learning environment for students and staff.

There are five levels of suspension. The categories for suspensions range from students using physical force to suspensions for "insubordinate behaviors." Some students at the hearing reported being suspended for wearing hats, chewing gum and talking back to teachers or deans.

In addition, students as young as five and six years-old were highlighted for being suspended under some of the "zero tolerance policies" of the DOE. According to Jackson, three schools issued suspensions to 10 or more 5-year-olds, and seven schools gave suspensions to at least 10 6-year-olds.

According to the testimony by the DOE, "The suspensions rates for our youngest children indicate we need a more targeted focus to help schools adopt preventative interventions so that suspensions are not necessary."

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which was instrumental in getting the law enacted, questioned the data the DOE provided overall. The NYCLU also raised concerns on the data not including schools with less than 10 suspensions and not providing a breakdown by race and ethnicity or providing the number of special needs students suspended citywide.

Under the Student Safety Act, the DOE is required to provide statistics on the number of suspensions. The New York City Police Department is also required to report the number of summonses and arrests made by school safety officers and police officers assigned to schools. The City Council hearing reported only on the data from the DOE and not the NYPD.

Jackson called on the DOE to create a survey to gauge the reasons for the disproportionately high percentage of Black and Hispanic student suspensions, while the NYCLU called on the City Council to amend the law to ensure accurate counting of citywide suspensions for each reporting category.