Suspension Intervention

As discipline code revisions delayed, advocates want some suspensions banned

The school discipline code will soon get its first update under the de Blasio administration, and advocates are hoping that Chancellor Carmen Fariña’s talk of discipline reform will translate into a new suspension policy.

Specifically, organizations like the Dignity in Schools Campaign and the New Settlement Parent Action Committee want the revised code to ban suspensions for Infraction B21, or “defying or disobeying authority.” It’s a move that some other big cities, including Los Angeles, have already made in an attempt to reduce the number of students taken out of the classroom—though not one with universal support from educators.

The discipline code, which outlines the city’s school discipline policies and students’ rights, is updated and released before every school year. Over the past few years, changes have focused on reducing suspensions and promoting alternative discipline measures.

This summer, the discipline code revision has been postponed indefinitely, though it will likely be completed within the next two months so it can go into effect in September. Last year the department held a public hearing to solicit feedback on proposed changes to the code, and this year’s hearing, scheduled for June 10, has yet to take place.

A spokeswoman for the department did not provide an explanation for the delay, though she did say the department is continuing to review the code as well as public feedback.

“We’re hopeful it’s delayed for reasons we support,” said Brady Smith, principal of the James Baldwin School in Chelsea, a school that has been proactive in its attempts to reduce suspensions and develop alternative discipline policies.

While the department did not say whether a revised code will prohibit suspensions for Infraction B21, Fariña has spoken about her desire to reduce suspensions citywide. Although suspensions across the city fell 27 percent between 2010 and 2013, some groups of students are still disproportionately suspended.

In the 2012-13 school year, 53 percent of students suspended were black, even though black students constitute 27 percent of public school enrollment. Twelve percent of public school students have special needs, yet those students served 34 percent of suspensions that year.

“Defying or disobeying authority” is the second most common reason for New York City student suspensions. Last May, the Los Angeles Unified School District prohibited suspensions for “willful defiance,” a similar category that advocates say was often used to justify suspensions that could have been dealt with less harshly.

But critics of banning suspensions for “defying authority” argue that punitive discipline can be important for giving students structure and showing that actions have consequences.

Ilana Garon, who has taught high school English for 10 years on the Christopher Columbus campus, said that advocacy groups are not “clear on the realities of the classroom.” Ideally, she believes, schools would have a wider range of options for disciplining students, but suspensions still serve as a powerful deterrent.

“High school students are old enough to know better, that you don’t curse out a teacher,” she said. “If we send them a message that in the working world that’s OK, I don’t think that’s helping them either. Also, when you’re having a class of 34 kids and one kid is being crazily disruptive, you’ve got to think about the other 33 kids. They have a right to education as well.”

Banning suspensions for “defying authority” could also create a resource gap. While the city has committed to expanding restorative justice programs for dealing with discipline issues, those programs would only reach a fraction of city schools, potentially leaving others without new resources for dealing with student behavior problems.

Still, advocates think “defying or disobeying authority” is much too broad a category to be a fair rationale for suspension.

“I think it’s scary when you go to school as a student and for any minor thing, you get suspended and it all falls under one category,” said Lynn Sanchez, a parent involved with the New Settlement Apartments Parent Action Committee. “There are specifics as to pushing, fighting, things of that nature, but anything can be insubordination.”

Rachel Lissy, the senior program officer at Ramapo for Children, said that while discipline policy changes are a start, teachers also need more training to develop classroom management skills and reflect on the sources of student behavior issues.

Teachers never enter the profession looking to punish students, Lissy added. Yet in some cases, “lacking classroom management skills, frustrated by a lack of control, and bruised by the hurtful behavior of their students, [they] may be drawn to punitive practices,” she said.

The ban on suspensions for Infraction B21 would be the latest in a string of changes meant to reduce suspensions and counter the phenomenon of “pushout,” in which a student feels consistently alienated from school and is pushed farther away from graduating, feeding the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

When a suspension does occur, it can take one of two forms: a principal’s suspension, which lasts for one to five days, and a superintendent’s suspension, which can last between six days and a year.

During a principal’s suspension, students are supposed to come to school and complete schoolwork in a specially designated room. For a superintendent’s suspension, students go to a hearing where they have the chance to argue their case and potentially shorten their suspension. Once the suspension begins, the student must report to an Alternate Learning Center, where he or she receives group instruction with other suspended students.

In August 2012, changes to the discipline code prohibited the city from issuing superintendent’s suspensions to students in kindergarten through third grade. The same year, a section in the Discipline Code was created to describe restorative approaches like student justice panels.

For the 2013-14 school year, the language in the code was changed to read that schools “must,” instead of “should,” make “every reasonable effort” to utilize guidance interventions such as counseling, parent outreach, community service when disciplining students.

Aside from pushing revisions to the Discipline Code, some groups are exploring alternate ways to decrease suspensions. The New Settlement Parent Action Committee, for one, has brought students and parents to speak at training sessions for approximately 1,000 school safety agents, according to Sanchez. Approximately 200 police officers and 5,000 school safety agents are currently scattered across the city’s schools.

“I think that it’s an eye-opener for them when they start understanding what the school-to-prison pipeline is, when they start getting data as to which sets of students are mostly affected, when they start understanding what students are thinking,” Sanchez said. “It’s a powerful dynamic.”

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Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.