Nilesh Wishwasrao, a former student at Flushing High School, said he’s been suspended from school so many times that he finally lost count.
“Their first reaction was always a suspension,” Wishwasrao recalled Wednesday at a City Council hearing about the Department of Education’s suspension data released last month.
Wishwasrao said he was suspended “constantly” for what he said were small infractions, such as chewing gum and wearing a hat in school. Sometimes he was more disruptive, “talking back to a teacher, yelling at a dean.”
Finally, Wishwasrao testified, a guidance counselor met with his father to explain that high school probably wasn’t right for him and “it would be better if I get a GED rather than a high school diploma.”
Wishwasrao never graduated and is now pursuing his GED.
Wishwasrao was part of a chorus of criticism from students and advocates who testified at the hearing, held by the City Council’s education committee. Their testimonies came directly after DOE officials shed more light on suspensions in the city schools and promised changes to how some suspensions are handled.
At least 45,939 students — or 4.5 percent of the city’s student population — were suspended during the 2010-2011 school year, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said in her testimony. The majority of them — 70 percent — were suspended just once, she said, but more than one in 10 — about 6,000 students — were suspended three or more times.
Grimm defended the data against criticism that principals and superintendents were unnecessarily punishing students. She cited trends that showed long-term suspensions for more severe behavior and suspensions were declining and said that preliminary data for the 2011-2012 school year indicated a 13 percent decrease in all suspensions.
“Our schools are safer, suspension rates are declining, and students and staff are embracing more positive and progressive approaches towards high-quality learning environments,” Grimm said in her testimony.
But she acknowledged concerns about suspensions for certain groups, particularly young students. At least 814 suspensions were issued to students in third grade or below. Grimm said the department would monitor elementary schools with higher-than-average suspension rates.
“We have identified our younger children in particular as those who we want to pay attention to,” Grimm said.
In addition, Grimm and Elayna Konstan, who oversees long-term suspension centers known as alternative learning centers, announced that the DOE will try to ease the transition back into schools from ALCs by using transition coaches. The program is part of the city’s Young Men’s Initiative to aid black and Latino youth. The DOE sent about 15,000 students to ALCs last year, but just over half ended up attending, meaning that thousands of students spent their suspensions outside of a school environment.
Council members zeroed in on racial disparities in the suspension numbers. Black students, who make up about one third of the student population, represented half of all suspensions. At one point during the hearing, Councilman Charles Barron ordered every DOE official in the room to stand, then chastised Grimm because she and her colleagues were not black.
“Not a single black man is here to give you his perspective,” Barron said. “All white. Why wouldn’t you bring a black man here to give us insight?
Later in the hearing, Councilman Robert Jackson pressed the issue of race with advocates, including representatives of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which pushed for the data’s release.
“Why do you think black students are being suspended at such a high rate?” he asked. “Is it because they’re black? Is it because of racial discrimination? Is it because they’re more troubled? Is it because they’re more intimidating to teachers because they’re bigger?”
Udi Ofer, the NYCLU’s advocacy director, said there many factors could help explain black students’ higher suspension rates but noted that national research has found that black students are suspended more often than white students for the same infractions.
Council members did not address the fact that the suspension data the DOE released is incomplete. Citing federal privacy laws, the department did not release data about suspensions at hundreds of schools where there were fewer than 10 suspensions.
Another student who testified, Chanwatie Ramnauth, a senior at Hillcrest High School, said she did not believe that the school’s administration was accurately recording suspensions. According to official data, Hillcrest had fewer than 10 suspensions last year, so the DOE did not release details about the infractions. But Ramnauth said she saw suspensions issued daily at her school. She said she saw a dean on Monday confront one student who wanted to know why she was being suspended.
“He told her ‘It’s like a give-and-take marriage,’” Ramnauth recalled in her testimony. “You give me the authority to suspend you and I allow you to go to class.”