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Dignity in Schools-NY Takes Action!

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Over one hundred students, parents, and advocates gathered to speak at press conference and public hearing on high suspension rates, school pushout, and positive alternatives

On Tuesday, June 21st the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York (DSC-NY) hosted a press conference regarding the rising suspension rates in NYC schools and positive alternatives that can be implemented. Over 100 students, parents, educators, advocates and elected officials strongly spoke out against punitive approaches to discipline and showed support for restorative justice practices at the press conference and public hearing on proposed revisions to the NYC Department of Education’s Discipline Code. The students, parents, and advocates, representing over twenty-five organizations collectively, wore t-shirts that highlighted statistics on school pushout and positive alternatives.

Esperanza Vasquez, a public school parent and member of the New Settlement Apartments Parent Action Committee, spoke about how the public schools in her area of the south Bronx have permanent metal detectors and continually have the highest rates of suspensions and arrests of students. “Our students cannot learn if they do not feel safe. We need a school culture that is not just positive, but also diverse—one that actually makes conflict go away and prevents violence altogether. We want dignity for our students; we want respect for our people.” She demanded a more effective disciplinary system and better training for School Safety Agents. 

Over the past decade, suspensions across NYC have increased at an alarming rate. In 2008-2009, there were nearly 74,000 suspensions in NYC public schools, up from 28,500 in 2001-2002. These punitive policies target students of color at higher rates, contributing to the achievement gap and low graduation rates. Black students, who make up 33% of the population, received 53% of suspensions.

City Council Member Jumaane Williams said that he is tired of coming to the steps of Tweed Courthouse to discuss these issues that affect Black and Latino youth more negatively than others. “I think if it was the reverse we’d have this problem fixed already,” he said. As one who grew up with a disability and attended public schools, he is familiar with what it’s like to be targeted by school administrators. “The education system should be fair. Just because you are disabled, just because you are Black, just because you are Latino, you should not be suspended at a higher rate.” He urged all to continue speaking out against these injustices.

Nilesh Vishwasrao, a 17 year-old, who was pushed out of Flushing High School said, “We as the youth are here to say that suspensions are not the answer to all problems.  On the contrary, we need to implement positive alternatives, such as restorative justice, peer mediation and more one on one counseling.  Also, we would like the DOE to meet with students, parents, and the Dignity in Schools Campaign regularly because, at the end of the day, WE are the experts on how to deal with the youth, not the SSAs or misinformed staff who continue to tell their students that they are just not good enough.” As a member of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) and the DSC-NY, Nilesh is organizing other youth to change the policies and practices that denied him his right to education.

In the last two years, as a result of advocacy from members of DSC-NY, the Department of Education has made some positive changes to the Discipline Code. However, schools are still given wide discretion to enact severe suspensions as they see fit for a wide range of often minor misbehaviors, resulting in high suspension rates and detrimental outcomes for students. 

Various speakers stated that the Department of Education must not simply allude to restorative alternatives as options in the Disciplinary Code, but they must provide guidelines and encouragement so that schools have the tools to implement them. Linda Morales, a student at Belmont Preparatory High School and a youth leader of Sistas and Brothas United, spoke of her frustrations. After being trained as a peer mediator, she has had very little opportunity to use her skills. “Students do not want to be in an environment where they feel like they are doing something wrong all the time. Every day we have to go through metal detectors and we are watched by cameras everywhere we go, which makes us feel like criminals.” Many students, like Linda, want to help implement positive changes, but they need more support from administrators and the DOE.

The DOE hearing happens once a year to get public input before the new Discipline Code is released in September, and these are the types of changes and guidelines that many would like to see. In addition to demanding that a tiered system be implemented that reserves suspension only for the most serious infractions, DSC-NY is calling for the Office of School and Youth Development to hold monthly meetings with communities throughout the year to gather input and monitor implementation of the Code.

Schools around the nation that have implemented positive alternatives to suspensions, like restorative justice practices, conflict resolution, and PBIS, have seen reductions of up to 50% in suspensions and violent incidents, and increases in teacher satisfaction and academic outcomes. Schools in New York City are also beginning to implement these positive approaches. Brady Smith, the principal of Validus Preparatory High School, spoke about the restorative justice practices at his school, which he believes are positive alternatives to the harsh consequences that can harm a young person’s self esteem and academic achievement. 

“This year the Department of Education spent $300 million on school safety, managed by the New York Police Department. Our schools have twice as many law enforcement officers as they do counselors,” said the Reverend Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson, Executive Director of the Children’s Defense Fund New York. “The DOE must invest in our schools, but they have to do it differently. They must incorporate the knowledge and the experience of parents, students, teachers, and administrators. We must work together—we want to work together—and that is why you see us here today.”

The majority of those gathered on the steps for the press conference entered the building for the hearing, filling the room to capacity and leaving dozens of participants to show their support from outside. Over twenty-five students, parents, and advocates testified on behalf of DSC-NY and other organizations, sharing personal stories that highlight the problems with the current Discipline Code, commending the positive changes that have been made so far, and underscoring what more needs to be done.

Several of the parents that testified have children with disabilities, who are frequently shuffled from school to school and suspended at higher rates. They made it clear that schools need to provide more information to parents regarding the Discipline Code. Gabriela Silverio said that it’s like reading another language and Lakisha Brooks, a parent in involved in the Citywide Council on Special Education, stated that five years of disciplinary issues with her son passed before she ever saw a copy of the Discipline Code. Moreover, Ms. Brooks stated that it’s not enough for teachers and administrators to be “sensitive” to students with disabilities; they must be trained.

Ronnet Summer, another parent and a member of the Parent Action Committee, said: “We need to decriminalize our school system and develop a culture of mutual respect among the young people and adults in the school building. We need a system that’s less punitive and focused more on getting to the root of the issues to avoid conflict in the future.” Her son, who has ADHD and a learning disability, is thriving at his new school because there he is celebrated, not just tolerated.

Andy Artz, a member of DSC-NY and an attorney at Legal Services, also emphasized the importance of identifying root causes behind over-suspension and finding successful alternatives. He stated: “I was sorry not to see an addition to the code emphasizing that level 5 infractions should only be alleged in extreme circumstances. I hope that you will reconsider that suggestion before completing the final draft.”

Avni Bhatia of Advocates for Children spoke positively of some of the changes that have been made, such as those that no longer offer the option of long-term suspension for certain minor altercations. However, she said: “The current draft of the code still allows schools to suspend middle and high school students for up to 90 days for almost half of the 63 possible infractions.” Johanna Miller of the New York Civil Liberties Union requested several changes to the code, including that the DOE continue to reduce the number of zero tolerance infractions and ultimately eliminate them altogether.

Students spoke of instances in which they, or students they knew, had been suspended for things like chewing gum and doodling on a desk. Brook Robinson, a student representing Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, testified that she was nearly suspended for stating her opinion, for which her principal reprimanded her. Gabriel del Toro, a student and peer mediator at Lyons Community High School, spoke of the success of the peer mediation program at his school. He said, “I’m a senior—I’ve talked to students from grades 6 to 12 and I’ve felt connections with these students and they felt it was easier to come to me rather than an adult. When an adult tells you you’re being suspended it’s a very hard thing to hear. Having another student to talk to or somebody that’s older than you or somebody that’s been through it—it’s much easier to get your point across with students.” These are the kinds of programs that help to build community and reshape school culture.

Educators communicated the tremendous interest that exists for more restorative programs like this. Diana Isern, a teacher at Bushwick Campus has begun to implement restorative practices in her school and has been approached by many educators and administrators who want to be involved. She said, “A lot of teachers will suspend and go to detentions because there’s no other place for them to go.” She spoke of the gray area that frustrates many teachers and said that training in restorative practices seems to be filling that gap and offering alternatives. She commends the OSYD for supporting and conducting more teacher training, which will take place in the upcoming year.

Liza Campbell, an educator who is also involved in Teachers Unite and DSC-NY, delivered a similar message: “I would like to say that I know many educators who support more options for schools, as opposed to suspension. And the UFT did not speak for me today when they said that schools should not have options as opposed to suspensions for drug-related offenses. I think that schools should absolutely have more options. And not only that, students and parents should be involved in what those options are and in deciding what those options are.” She acknowledged, however, that we’re also talking about time and funding issues. If the DOE could partner with DSC-NY to provide free training, schools would be thrilled. “We do discipline this way because it’s what we know, it’s what schools know. It’s because it’s how our legal system works in this country, but it doesn’t have to be that way—there are a lot of alternatives.”

Many of the speakers echoed similar points, which converged to form the ultimate message: we need to put an end to these ineffective punitive practices, work together to implement restorative justice alternatives that have already been successful in several school districts, and create more positive and respectful school cultures. As DSC-NY, we have three specific requests that we have formally proposed to the DOE. First, we want the DOE to be proactive in implementing Restorative Justice and Positive Behavior Intervention Supports citywide, beginning with the highest need schools. These practices cannot simply be given as an option, but rather the DOE must provide the necessary resources. Second, we ask that the DOE expand training on how to implement these practices for School Safety Agents, counselors, deans, teachers, and principals. Finally, we ask that the DOE schedule monthly meetings involving the Office of School and Youth Development, students, parents, and advocates so that all voices are heard regarding the Discipline Code policies.

By Emily Shaw and Shoshi Chowdhury

Media coverage from this event:

- New York Daily News: Increase Counseling to Drop Suspensions, Parents and Advocates Urge Education Department

- Queens Chronicle: Protesting School Suspension Rates

- EdVox: Students Know Best on High Suspension Rates and Zero Tolerance in NYC Schools

- DSC-NY on WBAI radio: Click here to stream.

- Epoch Times (in Chinese): New School Discipline Code

- Amsterdam News: Parents Protest Punitive Discipline in New York City Schools

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