In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education held that equal access to public education is essential to the progress of a democratic nation. By law, race could no longer be used to exclude children from school. Brown’s promise of equal educational opportunity has never been fully realized in New York City. It continues to be impeded by harsh disciplinary and school safety policies that disproportionately exclude low-income students, black students, Latino students and students with disabilities from classrooms. As a result, these students are denied Brown’s guarantee of equal access to an education, adding to their greater risk of being pushed through the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP).
The school-to-prison pipeline describes the disciplinary and school safety practices that force children out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. Students are pushed into the pipeline indirectly, through suspensions and expulsions, and directly, when police respond to student misbehavior.
Today, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) released a report, A, B, C, D, STPP: How School Discipline Feeds the School-to-Prison Pipeline, which documents how Bloomberg-era policy changes have dramatically increased the number of NYPD personnel and metal detectors in the schools, and how suspensions have skyrocketed. The report also includes new data that for the first time, links suspension patterns, based on students’ home ZIP codes, to the NYPD’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practices.
Over the last decade, the suspension rate has more than doubled, from less than 29,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 in 2011. Despite recent declines, dramatic disparities persist: Black students, who make up less than a third of total public school students (29 percent), served half (50 percent) of all 2010-11 suspensions. The NAACP Legal Defense fund has called New York City discipline policies “among the most aggressive and explicit School-to-Prison Pipeline policies in the country.”
Among the report’s findings:
- Students who live in areas where stop-and-frisk activity is high – such as East New York, Brownsville, Mott Haven, Jamaica and Harlem – are more likely to be suspended from school than students in areas where stop-and-frisk activity is low.
- District 7 in the South Bronx had the highest suspension rate in the city – and also the highest enrollment of low-income students.
- Students with special needs are suspended twice as often as general education students.
- Black students with special needs serve 14 percent of overall suspensions, yet represent only 6 percent of total enrollment.
- White students serve only 7 percent of overall suspensions, yet make up 14 percent of total enrollment.
- During the Bloomberg administration, the number of NYPD “school safety” officers has increased by 35 percent, bringing the total to at least 5,400 officers – even though no evidence clearly links the decline of major crimes in city schools to the expanded police presence.
- Students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch (FLE) constitute two-thirds of New York City student population, but serve three-fourths of total suspensions.
- The racial disparities evident in the suspension data are amplified in arrests. More than 60 percent of all school arrests in New York involve black youth, who comprise less than a third of enrolled students. An arrested student is twice as likely to drop out of school — and dropouts are eight times more likely to land in jail.
Disproportionate school discipline reinforces the challenges faced by many students who are already less likely to graduate. Bloomberg’s 2003 disciplinary plan, Impact Schools, called for an immediate, consistent response to even the most minor violation of a school’s disciplinary policy. Such zero-tolerance policies have been widely discredited as discriminatory and ineffective. Under the mayor’s provisions, a student in a school with metal detectors caught with a cell phone may be treated as though he or she has smuggled in drugs or a weapon. These zero-tolerance policies have eroded the implementation of federal protections that require public schools to carefully examine the connections between disability and behavior.
The report offers the following recommendations to the DOE and the next mayoral administration:
- Eliminate zero tolerance in the discipline code and in practice. These problematic policies equate the most serious misbehavior with the most trivial.
- End the criminalization of school discipline. This requires overhauling the agreement between the NYPD and the DOE to limit the role of school safety officers and ensure their activities are consistent with sound educational practices.
- Ensure adequate training for police personnel who work in the schools. School safety officers must be meaningfully trained alongside educators in topics including child adolescent development and psychology, cultural competency, de-escalation and conflict resolution, and restorative justice approaches.
- Inform parents and students of their rights, and honor due process and special education protections. While students are guaranteed protections before their right to an education can be taken away through a suspension, those protections are often ignored or simply not communicated to families in the first place.
- Implement positive behavioral supports in all schools, and train all adults in each building. Studies of other large urban school districts such as Los Angeles, Baltimore, Buffalo and Denver have documented that these supportive approaches to school discipline, such as positive behavior interventions, counseling and mentoring, help foster a safe learning environment and contribute higher graduation rates for all students.
- Close loopholes in the Student Safety Act to improve public disclosure of comprehensive data on school suspensions and law enforcement activity. Under current law, the NYPD and New York City’s DOE must report demographic information about suspension summonses and arrests, but action is needed to plug significant loopholes and end selective noncompliance by the NYPD. For example, the NYPD does not report data on handcuffing in schools, special education status of arrested students, or any information on arrests and summonses in schools conducted by precinct-based police officers.
As America’s largest school district, New York is uniquely poised to serve as a national model for dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. We encourage the next mayor to seize this opportunity and implement these meaningful reforms, which will help keep more students in school, regardless of their academic ability, ZIP code or skin color.Samantha Pownall is an Adjunct Professor of Law at New York Law School and a Staff Attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union