new approach

Long-awaited discipline policy changes further restrict suspensions, restraints

PHOTO: Ron Coleman

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced long-awaited revisions to school discipline policies on Friday, including new suspension procedures and restrictions on school-based police officers.

The plan includes a new review process for suspensions for insubordination, restrictions on handcuffing students, and expanded training for the city’s School Safety Agents. The changes came as the city faced mounting pressure to further revamp its discipline code given the disproportionate suspension rates of black and Hispanic students and students with disabilities, which city officials have said they are committed to improving.

“Today’s changes will protect students from bullying and violence, and provide relief and a better school experience for students who need to be focused on their learning and not constantly worry about getting suspended for any minor incident,” Chancellor Fariña said in a statement.

Suspensions are down 27 percent since 2011, and in-school arrests have dropped 32 percent between 2012-13 and 2013-14, according to city statistics. But black and Hispanic students account for 90 percent of suspensions but just 70 percent of city students, while students with special needs account for about one-third of suspensions.

Under the new policy, principals will be required to obtain written approval from the department’s Office of Safety and Youth Development before suspending a student for defying authority, a move likely to reduce suspensions for less significant offenses. The more severe superintendent’s suspensions are being no longer an option for students involved in “minor physical altercations.”

The city’s changes are less drastic than those made by a few other large cities in recent years. Both San Francisco and Los Angeles have eliminated schools’ ability to suspend students for “willful defiance,” and there has been a nationwide push to roll back zero-tolerance discipline policies, which favored severe penalties for minor infractions.

The changes came as a disappointment to advocacy groups, 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. In a sign that there could be more changes coming, de Blasio and Fariña created a “School Climate Leadership Team” that includes advocacy groups.

“We’re hopeful about the creation of the mayor’s leadership team, and think that could help us pave the way for new discipline policies,” said Shoshi Chowdhury of the Dignity in Schools campaign.

Principals have long cautioned that it’s not simple to remove a tool for dealing with unruly students, like suspensions, especially if schools don’t get any additional training or resources.

The city is allocating $432,000 in new money for the changes, officials said, to expand an algebra-based mentoring program from four to six schools next year. The programs will cost $5 million overall, though that money is already being spent.

The City Council will continue providing funding to train school staff in “restorative justice” practices, which include peer mediation and student panels that try to change students’ behaviors. Supporters say that those programs can help create a positive environment and offer a more productive way of dealing with disruptive students, though they take significant effort to implement fully.

“We have a lot of schools interested in changing their discipline policies, but they know it takes money, staff, and training time,” said Urban Youth Collaborative coordinator Kesi Foster.

The changes are the latest in a series of recent edits to the city’s discipline and suspension policies, but the first under the de Blasio administration.

Calls for changes to the suspension policy grew louder when the city began reporting suspension statistics in 2012. A coalition of advocates led by retired Chief Judge of New York Judith Kaye made recommendations for changes in 2013, and the discipline code—which outlines the city’s school discipline policies and students’ rights—has changed over the last few years to emphasize alternatives to suspension.

The package of changes announced Friday includes new training and restrictions on School Safety Agents and police officers assigned to schools, who man metal detectors and patrol the halls of city schools. (The city’s 5,000 safety agents together make up one of the largest police forces in the country, and report to the police department, not the principals in their buildings.)

And after advocacy groups publicly voiced their frustrations in October about reports of children as young as five being restrained in schools, the discipline code now says that students under age 12 will not be handcuffed. The police department will also start providing monthly reports on how often students are restrained.

The revised code includes more information on how schools can address bullying and changes to rules about calling 911 for help dealing with disruptive students. The city settled a lawsuit in December requiring the Department of Education to come up with a formal plan for dealing with disruptive students that didn’t involve calling 911, which often resulted in students being sent to the emergency room though they had no medical issues. The city is now proposing that each school be responsible for developing a guide for when a student’s behavior warrants calling 911.

The proposed changes to the discipline code will be discussed at a March 2 hearing and will go into effect this spring.

Sarah Darville contributed reporting.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”