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Task force outlines strategies to keep kids in school, out of court

A group of city officials, educators and members of the justice system are determined to make lowering school suspensions and arrests a high city priority.

The 45-member School-Justice Partnership task force led by a former state judge released a report Thursday that recommends the next mayor encourage all agencies and the court system to work together to reduce suspensions, summonses and student arrests.

The report, which took two years to complete, was presented to an audience of about 150 at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where mayoral candidate Bill Thompson also made an appearance to support the recommendations.

Advocates have long clamored for less punitive approaches to school discipline. The report offers specific recommendations like schools using positive discipline strategies rather than suspensions and school safety agents responding only to criminal behavior and not minor misdemeanors that would overhaul the entire discipline system.

Its recommendations were based on data that nearly three of every four of the 882 arrests in the 2012 school year were for misdemeanors and students as young as 11 were being arrested.

The report also said from the 2006 school year to the 2012 school year, suspensions increased by 40 percent, but that number doesn’t take into account the recent sharp decrease of suspensions after a new, less punitive discipline code was put into place.

Spokeswoman Marge Feinberg said the department, which is a member of the task force, has “enacted programs to address incidents and student behavioral issues before they escalate.” She cited a 36 percent decline in total suspensions from July to December 2012 compared to the previous year, while also acknowledging that the department could do more to get schools to choose disciplinary approaches that don’t rely on suspensions.

Dignity in Schools’ Liz Sullivan, who was on the task force, said after the event she and other advocates think returning school safety control to principals was an important next step, but “the task force wasn’t ready to take that step in the report.” She said the focus of the report was about protocol and first steps schools can take so eventually a police presence won’t be needed in schools any more.

Thompson, who was the president of the city Board of Education from 1996 to 2011, reminded the audience that he oversaw the transfer of the Office of School Safety from the Department of Education to the police department because “the truth was, we weren’t doing as good of a job as we could have.” He said Mayor Michael Bloomberg had ignored the memorandum of understanding he struck with police department, leading to the high rate of suspensions the district is seeing now.

“I remember being very specific. I didn’t want to see young people arrested for some of the things I had done when I was a New York City public school students. Things like pushing, things like minor fist fights. We didn’t want to see young people wind up with records because of that.”