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Advocates say draft discipline code is a letdown after last year

A year after the Department of Education substantially revised its discipline code to favor less punitive responses to student misbehavior, advocates say a new round of revisions misses an opportunity to improve school climate further.

Last year, in sweeping changes, the department reduced penalties for minor misbehavior, introduced some alternatives to suspensions, and eliminated suspensions altogether for the city’s youngest students. The proposed changes to the discipline code for next year are more incremental, highlighting some discipline strategies that could replace suspension and clarifying that in-school discipline should not cause students to miss instructional time.

“We continued this same strong message about progressive discipline and we want to continue to reinforce a range of disciplinary and guidance supports so schools can develop a progressive approach,” said Marge Feinberg, a department spokeswoman.

The main addition to the code is specific language about how to ensure that students with special needs are disciplined appropriately. Special education advocates have expressed concerns about the possibility that discipline would fall disproportionately on students with students disabilities as the city asks schools to mainstream the students more often.

But advocates for more substantial overhauls to the way city schools handle discipline say the department still has not gone far enough. Los Angeles recently eliminated suspensions for much nonviolent misbehavior, and in a statement, the Dignity in Schools Campaign — which has long pushed for less punitive school discipline policies — questioned why New York City had not taken the same step.

“All of our schools have requirements on everything else, like attendance, classes, graduation rates, keeping a school open or closed. And our schools follow these requirements,” said Shikha Rawat, a youth leader with the campaign. “So it’s hard to understand as students why we can’t have a Discipline Code that requires guidance interventions before deciding on a suspension. That kind of requirement would improve school attendance, graduation rates and help with all the other things schools are required to do.”

The city still allows for short-term suspensions for infractions that include behavior such as disobeying school safety agents or breaking the Department of Education’s internet use policy. For more egregious behavior, suspensions can be even longer.

“We feel that long-term suspensions don’t really get at the cause of the issue and really don’t help students,” said Shoshi Chadbury, a Dignity in Schools coordinator.

The department will hold a public hearing about the code on June 6 at Stuyvesant High School and release a final version in August, to go into effect for the 2013-2014 school year.

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