Recently, an announcement of significant changes to the discipline code in New York City public schools was made. These changes in policy, intended to provide safety and fairness, are partially derived from the outcry of parents and advocates of children of color who are frustrated beyond measure by the restraints used on our children, the disproportionate suspension levels and expulsions.
At this point in time, Black children are suspended and expelled at a disproportionate rate. According to the Department of Education, 53,465 suspensions occurred in the 2012-2013 school year. Of those suspended, Black students made up 52.8 percent, even though they were only 27.2 percent of the student population.
When it comes to expulsions, the numbers are even worse. A Black girl in a New York City public school is 53 times more likely to get expelled than a white girl, and Black boys are expelled 10 times more than white boys. These staggering statistics are finally being confronted, but is it enough?
The “new” code calls for principals to go through the Office of Safety and Youth Development to suspend students for insubordination. But the real question is, will the OSYD just rubberstamp principals requests, or will they give support to the schools and teachers who are trying to deal with students who frustrate them?
In addition, the new code will, according to the DOE press release, “vigorously enforce an existing policy that requires principals to seek authorization from OSYD before suspending students in kindergarten through third grade.” So we see here that the policy is already in place; it has just been ignored. Who is to say that it will not continue to be ignored?
Other questions beg to be asked: If the new regulations call for guidance to the schools so that they are trained to de-escalate behaviors and reduce the number of 911 calls, then what is the timeline? Will the training of 1,500 staff members over the next three years be enough?
Although many questions remain to be asked, there are some positive advances. The DOE is training staff in 64 schools on restorative approaches. This number will increase to 100 by the coming school year. Also, children who are court-involved will now see guidance counselors when they enter detention. Many of these children have never interfaced with a counselor, so this intervention could be a positive step. And we hope to see no further action to reduce the number of counselors.
Another step in the right direction is the pilot program that will start in the Bronx to give students “Warning Cards” instead of summonses in school.
But what is still the most troubling is the use of handcuffs on students. Under the new code, the police will not restrain students under the age of 12 with metal handcuffs in schools, “except in situations where other methods of restraint have failed and NYPD officers, the public or students are threatened by or facing bodily harm, or if doing so during arrest situations would improve public safety.” So who determines the risk to public safety, and if metal is prohibited, are Velcro or plastic cuffs allowed? The code further states that the officers will need explicit authorization from a supervisor before the use of metal restraints on students under 12 “unless exigent circumstances prevent this.” We should all feel better knowing that the kids who are handcuffed will no longer be handcuffed to radiators, to chairs or to other students, and that while handcuffed they will be supervised at all times. But still, handcuffs are being used in schools on children under the age of 12.
We still have a crisis on our hands. Our children are still in danger from the status quo that has not really changed in our schools. Although some of the reforms are positive, a much more concentrated effort is needed to make changes to discipline in our schools.
We could all learn some lessons from Bank Street College, where the approach to teaching teachers changes troublemakers into leaders. If we could do that, we could change the direction of education in this city. We could change the face of neighborhoods and open the doors to higher education for more of our kids. But I guess the real question is, do the powers that be really want to?