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October 2011

Students Arrested for Horse Play?

Advocates get City Council to shine light on harsh discipline

In December 2010, young people joined the Student Safety Coalition at a press conference to support the Student Safety Act. Photo courtesy of NYCLU
Julian was new at his high school and had never had a discipline problem. In gym, he asked a classmate if she was in a gang. Offended, she and her friends got physical with him. Defending himself, Julian fell and cut his eye on the bleachers. The school tried to suspend him for 90 days—half the school year—as part of their “zero tolerance” policy.

“What used to get you a trip to the principal’s office now gets you a trip to the local precinct in handcuffs,” says Jennifer Carnig, director of communications at the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which got a $30,000 grant in 2010 for advocacy to reduce school arrests. “We are working to restore the power of educators to discipline children rather than always involve NYPD officers. Right now there are more police in our schools than guidance counselors, which sends the wrong message to kids.”

From 1999 to 2009, long-term suspensions doubled in City schools according to the NYCLU’s report, Education Interrupted: the Growing Use of Suspensions in New York City’s Public Schools, which also finds that black students serve more and longer suspensions than white students and that children with disabilities are suspended at four times the rate of non-disabled kids. What’s more, “suspensions don’t work,” says Liz Sullivan of the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (NESRI), which got $145,000 in 2009 and 2010 to reduce punitive discipline in schools. “They don’t get at the root of the problem, and young people who are suspended repeatedly and introduced to the criminal justice system at an early age are more likely than their peers to drop out of school and end up incarcerated.”

After three years of advocacy by the Student Safety Coalition, 18 organizations including NYCLU and NESRI that worked together to end the school-to-prison pipeline, the Student Safety Act was passed by the City Council and signed into law in early 2011.

The Act requires the Department of Education to report on the numbers and types of suspensions citywide, and requires the NYPD’s school safety officers to report what they are doing to whom in schools. Information on the race, age, special education status, and English-language proficiency of suspended students is being collected. “We are very pleased that this act is the most comprehensive local reporting law on suspension and arrests in the nation,” says Carnig. “While the bill was passed just eight months ago, it is already having an impact because schools and police know any action they take will be public knowledge.”

In addition to The Trust’s support, our Donors’ Education Collaborative, a funders’ group that supports policy reform to make City schools more responsive to the needs of all children, made a $150,000 grant in 2010 to NESRI to continue working with the Student Safety Coalition, now called the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York. Trust grantees Advocates for Children of New York, the Correctional Association, NYCLU, and the Urban Youth Collaborative are working on this campaign and other advocacy on school discipline.

“We are proud of the work of all of these groups over the past two years,” says Shawn Morehead, Trust program officer for education. “They have helped create school environments in which students and staff feel safe and respected, and have built support for appropriate disciplinary measures that will ultimately improve students’ performance.”

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