NEW YORK – The New York Civil Liberties Union is urging the Department of Education to continue its ongoing efforts to include positive-discipline practices in the city’s schools. In testimony provided on the disciple code for New York City public schools the NYCLU cautioned that the DOE’s disciplinary code and zero-tolerance policies criminalize student discipline and discriminate unfairly against students of color and those with special needs.
“Education is a child’s right, not a reward for good behavior,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “Sadly, the over-reliance on suspensions in New York City schools all too often denies our most vulnerable children their right to an education. This harsh approach to discipline, combined with aggressive policing in schools, pushes kids from the classroom into the criminal justice system. Suspension should be a last resort, and t he discipline code should be revised to reflect that. ”
From 1999 to 2009, long-term suspensions doubled in the city’s schools, and short-term suspensions increased by 149 percent, according to an NYCLU analysis published in the report Education Interrupted: The Growing Use of Suspensions in New York City’s Public Schools.
Much of these increases can be attributed to greater numbers of “zero-tolerance” infractions in the discipline code, which disproportionately affect black students and students with special needs: Black students serve more and longer suspensions than their white schoolmates; children with disabilities are suspended at four times the rate of their able peers.
Police personnel are also too often involved in minor disciplinary incidents, often elevating and escalating mistakes and misbehavior to criminal acts. In recent months a high school student was handcuffed and arrested for writing on his desk and a first grade special education student who was handcuffed for throwing a temper tantrum.
But the discipline code is silent on the issue of police in schools. Reading this document, a student or parent would have no sense of the fact that breaking a rule can result in an arrest, physical restraint by police, and criminal charges against the student.
The DOE must at the very least to inform teachers and students of restrictions on the types of discipline situations that may result in police involvement.
“Police should never get involved in minor misbehavior. But if it is the DOE’s policy that students should get arrested for writing on their desks, the discipline code must clearly state this,” said Lieberman.
The NYCLU also offered praise to the DOE for revising the discipline code over the past year to include references to guidance interventions, counseling, mediation, mentoring, conflict resolution, community service, and referrals to community based organizations, health organizations and outside counselors, in addition to the punitive discipline options.
“The DOE has taken important first steps toward reducing suspensions and must be commended for its efforts to create a more positive discipline regime,” said NYCLU Assistant Advocacy Director Johanna Miller. “The DOE must now measure the use of alternatives to suspension. We strongly believe that using positive discipline across the board will make schools safer, calmer and more effective places for young people to learn. Collecting reliable, detailed data will be the only way to know if fewer students are actually suspended each year.”
To continue to reduce the number of suspensions in New York City, the NYCLU recommends that the DOE:
1. Mandate the use of positive discipline alternatives for low-level infractions . Without consistent reinforcement and a mandate from the city, schools will undoubtedly revert to suspensions.
2. Continue to reduce the number of zero tolerance infractions in the discipline code , with the ultimate goal of eliminating them altogether. As positive discipline becomes the norm in schools, discretion in disciplinary options must be restored to educators.
3. Institute a reporting system to track the use of positive discipline alternatives and share statistical information with the public about the implementation of these alternatives.
4. Train teachers, administrators, and school safety officers on utilizing positive interventions and the importance of avoiding exclusionary discipline and law enforcement responses to common misbehavior.
5. Adjust the levels in the discipline code to reflect a genuine commitment to progressive discipline. Exclusionary punishments should not be available options for minor misbehavior.
6. Address police practices in the discipline code . The DOE must take a stronger stance on the proper role of police in schools, and parents and students have a right to be informed as to what that role is.
7. Ensure that students’ rights to free speech and religious expression are honored throughout the discipline code and in practice . This recommendation is made with specific reference to infractions B09, B36 and B40. In particular, the NYCLU has serious concerns about the constitutionality of the DOE’s attempt to ban out-of-school “cyber-bullying” and “lewd or vulgar” internet postings.
8. Properly distinguish between physical and verbal sexual harassment and consensual physical contact in infraction B35. The NYCLU has called for this change for three years. As it is currently written, infraction B35 is illogical, imprecise, and harmful to students.