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Suspensions down 10 percent this school year as city prepares to apply new policies

Suspensions in city schools over the first seven months of the school year are down 10 percent compared to that period last year, officials said Tuesday.

Over the first 110 days of school, 22,509 principal suspensions were handed down to city students, in addition to more than 6,400 lengthier superintendents suspensions. That’s down from 25,385 principal suspensions and about 6,780 superintendent suspensions made over that period last year, as arrests by school safety officers and overall crime in schools dropped as well.

The declines are good news for the Department of Education, which has continued to try to push suspensions down citywide. A new discipline code for city schools that makes it more complicated to suspend young students and to suspend students for minor infractions takes effect April 13.

The city has faced mounting pressure to further revamp its policies given the disproportionate suspension rates of black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities. In 2013-14, black students accounted for more than 53 percent of suspensions, though they make up just over 26 percent of the city’s students. Students with disabilities were also over-represented: 36 percent of suspensions were served by special-education students, while only 19 percent of city students are classified as having special needs.

The updated code includes a review process for suspensions for insubordination and restrictions on handcuffing students. The city’s school safety agents, who make up one of the largest police forces in the country, are also receiving expanded training.

The education department and the police department are required to release data on suspensions and arrests twice yearly by the School Safety Act. The new numbers portray a school system where far fewer students are being arrested on school grounds than were just a few years ago (at least by School Safety Agents, whose arrests are included in the reports). Nearly 900 students were arrested during the 2011-12 school year, but just 225 students have been arrested so far this school year.

On Tuesday, civil rights activists were at City Hall with City Council members to introduce amendments to that law that would require a more detailed accounting. The changes would require the police department to report arrests made by officers on school grounds even if they aren’t school safety officers; for the city to report how many students were suspended multiple times; and to report instances when students are restrained or referred to emergency medical services.

“The city is at a point where everyone is determined to take school discipline in another direction, but we know we need much more information to know where to continue moving,” said Kesi Foster of Urban Youth Collaborative, an alliance of groups that supports alternatives to suspensions.

They are also calling for data on students referred to emergency medical services to be sorted by student ZIP codes, which advocates say could further illuminate the disparities in how students are disciplined.

The discipline code changes released in February came as a disappointment to advocates, who wanted the city to eliminate suspensions for “defying authority” and bar school safety officers from being able to arrest or ticket students for misbehavior. But the “School Climate Leadership Team,” which many of those advocates praised, has been meeting and will make a set of school discipline recommendations before the end of the school year, according to the department.

“Through our new discipline code, I’m confident we will continue to hold members of our school community accountable while keeping more students in the classroom learning,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement. “We are collaborating with parents, community members, and educators to create environments where students can thrive both inside and outside of school.”

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