City schools suspended their students more than 73,000 times during the 2010-2011 school year, according to new data from the city's Department of Education (DOE).
More than half of those suspensions were given to African American students, who make up 33 percent of the total student body. Close to a third were given to students with special education plans, who comprise 17 percent of students. Suspension numbers are up over 2009-2010 when there were 71,721 suspensions.
This is the first time that the DOE has tracked suspensions by student demographics. The data was collected under a January 2011 law that requires both the DOE and the New York Police Department to deliver yearly reports on disciplinary actions taken against students, broken down by race, gender and special education status. The first NYPD report was due in September, but it has not yet been released.
The reporting requirements were enacted after years of advocacy from student rights groups, which argue that the excessive use of punitive measures—especially those that remove students from the classroom—pushes students of color out of school and into the criminal justice system. "Students who are attending a school that feels like a prison or where they can't trust adults are less likely to continue attending school," says Chris Tan, a project director at Advocates for Children. "Kids who are out of school are much more likely to end up in the criminal justice system."
Tan's project works with court-involved young people who need help navigating the education system. Most are referred by probation officers or judges. Tan says that, in the majority of cases that he sees, behavior problems trace back to unaddressed learning delays. "If a student is not learning how to read, year after year, and no one's addressing it, it shouldn't be a surprise when they start acting out—if only to avoid reading in front of their classmates. Instead of getting to the root of the problem, students are often just suspended and allowed to drop out. That almost always happens before they get arrested."
Advocates say the DOE gives schools far too much discretion to mete out harsh punishments for minor rule violations.
Since 2010, the DOE Discipline Code, which spells out schools' options for disciplining students who commit various infractions, has included a list of 'guidance interventions' to address student misbehavior. But schools still have the freedom to give suspensions for behaviors like using profanity or carrying a book of matches. "The broad range of alternatives to suspension which are outlined in the School Disciplinary Code—including conflict resolution, mentoring programs, and group and individual counseling—are rarely if ever used," attorneys from the Legal Aid Society said in testimony to the City Council.
Advocates argue that discretion often works against children of color. According to a 2011 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, based on data obtained through a lawsuit, black children are more likely to serve long-term suspension than their peers; more likely to be suspended multiple times; and more likely to be suspended for subjective misconduct like insubordination.
The Discipline Code does not regulate the circumstances under which School Safety Agents can or should be called in to discipline or arrest students. The NYPD posts about 5,200 such agents in city schools, according to a report from the New York City Bar Association. Over the past several years, agents have arrested students for violations such as writing on desks or, in the case of a 7-year-old boy in Queens earlier this year, throwing a temper tantrum.
Suspended students are legally entitled to receive academic instruction while they're out of their regular schools. Legal Aid attorneys say that instruction is often inadequate or nonexistent, and that their clients often sit at suspension sites with nothing to do. "This results in children falling far behind in their coursework," the attorneys said in their testimony, "causing some students to have to repeat an entire grade the following year. Some students become so frustrated at this unnecessary and illegal interruption in their education, that they drop out of school altogether."