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Kids wait to go outside at the Saratoga Early Childhood Education Center.

Kids wait to go outside at the Saratoga Early Childhood Education Center.

Jessica Glazer

Coalition proposes sweeping changes to state’s school discipline law to reduce suspensions

A top judge and the Assembly’s education chair are looking to change state law to further reduce suspensions.

A package of legislation, proposed last week, would amend the state’s school-discipline law to ban suspensions of young children for nonviolent infractions and limit suspensions to 20 days for all but the most extreme misconduct. The changes would also require schools to consider alternatives to suspension, including methods meant to de-escalate conflict.

“The thought that you get the quote-unquote bad kids out so you can get the quote-unquote good kids to learn is not the answer,” said Judith Kaye, New York state’s chief judge from 1993 to 2009, who has been driving efforts to reduce suspensions and is leading a coalition in support of the changes. “It’s fine that some people do it here and there, but I think we’ve reached a point where we need a more systemic approach.”

The legislation comes as a national movement to reduce suspensions has gained steam, and after New York City overhauled its own, more detailed school discipline code earlier this year. New York City’s changes now require principals to get approval for suspending students for the low-level offense of defiance and bars them from suspending students for long periods for getting into fights.

The legislation, proposed by the Assembly’s education chair Catherine Nolan, would spread some of those ideas statewide. To be enacted, the legislation would need support from the Assembly and the Senate, as well as Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But Nolan’s support could make it a priority for the Assembly when lawmakers return in January.

Since the 2010-11 school year, when 73,000 suspensions were given out to students in New York City, the rate of suspensions has been steadily declining. Last year, city students received just over 50,000 suspensions, 11,000 of which kept students out of schools.

But black and Hispanic students still account for 90 percent of suspensions, though they represent just 70 percent of city students. Students with disabilities account for about one-third of suspensions.

Some charter schools have continued to embrace suspensions, even for young students, as a way to maintain an orderly school culture that helps students learn. Eva Moskowitz, the founder of the 34-school Success Academy network of charter schools, defended her schools’ suspension rates for that reason on Thursday. A Chalkbeat analysis found that New York City charter schools suspended students at almost three times the rate of traditional public schools during the 2011-12 school year.

The proposed changes would add language specifically noting that the law applies to charter schools, which advocates said was an effort to clarify that point. (Charter schools must abide by state laws, but not the city’s own discipline code.)

Kaye said the legislation was intended to apply “universally.”

“We’ve seen people all around the country who are looking into these things instead of just banning kids and putting them on the road to prison,” Kaye said. “That’s not the answer.”