When the city proposed changes to its discipline rules, its new policy towards “cyber-bullying” and “sexting” caught the public eye.
But the central changes have nothing to do with text messages. They represent a win by civil rights groups who have been calling on the city to make sure that schools use more counseling and less punishment and suspension to resolve problems.
At a hearing on the proposed changes Wednesday, one middle school principal described a program that she piloted and is now part of the new code. In some schools the program, which is known as PBIS and is designed to encourage good behavior in all students at a school, can include a reward system in which students collect points toward a prize for demonstrating things like good study skills.
Denise Jamison, principal of Williamsburg’s M.S. 50, said that the program has helped improve the behavior of even some of her most struggling students. The “hottest ticket” for rewards, she said, is a “No Uniform Today” pass, or “NUT card.” One day, she recalled, she pulled over a student well-known by school staff for his temper and asked why he wasn’t in uniform.
“He pulls out [his NUT card], and we all started congratulating him,” she said. “Because we knew how much he would have had to improved in order to earn that.”
Jamison is fully adopting the program from a pilot year in sixth grade to all grades next year, over the objections of some of her teachers, whom she described as being more “old-school, traditional disciplinarians.”
But even with the changes, advocates from organizations like the New York Civil Liberties Union and Advocates for Children argued at a public hearing this week that the changes don’t go far enough. Students can still be arrested by school safety agents for minor infractions, they said, or charged with violations of the discipline code that are much harsher than warranted and removed from their classes unnecessarily.
“We have more school safety agents than guidance counselors,” said one Queens high school student, who said that he has been suspended from school for being late and for being accused of instigating fights he was not a part of.
Jamison had the opposite concern. She loves the program, she said, but is concerned that it does not offer schools enough support to deal with the worst of their worst offenders. The program is silent on what to do to help the most severe 5 percent of cases, Jamison said.
“I have students who do not fear God, man or beast,” she said. “And we need to have interventions for these students.”
Chris Tan, the director of Advocates for Children’s Juvenile Justice project, said that the NUT card anecdote illustrates how the PBIS program’s strategies can drive improvement in schools. But he said that Jamison’s concern at being lost over the most severe cases shows gaps between how the program is meant to work and how the city sometimes runs it.
“You’re supposed to be able to bring in outside support, which it sounds like she’s not getting,” he said.
You can read the full proposed disciplinary code here, and the city is accepting comments on the proposed changes until July 14. The proposed changes to the code are in blue text.