By the numbers

School suspensions fall sharply, but continue to land most heavily on black students

PHOTO: Jackie Schechter

The number of school suspensions fell by 17 percent last academic year as the city shifts away from that more punitive approach to discipline, yet schools continued to suspend black students and those with disabilities at disproportionately high rates.

Schools gave out about 9,000 fewer suspensions in 2014-15 than in the previous academic year, according to city education department data released Friday. In addition, arrests by school security officers dropped by 27 percent, and summonses fell by 15 percent, officials said.

The declines come as the city has ordered educators to rely less on removing disruptive students from school and more on addressing the causes of their misbehavior.

But while schools suspended fewer students from almost every group, certain groups continue to be suspended at disproportionate rates.

About 52 percent of suspensions went to black students, even though they represent just 28 percent of students — a wide gap that has narrowed slightly. Students with disabilities received 38 percent of all suspensions, though they make up just 18 percent of the city’s students. That disparity grew somewhat since last year.

Meanwhile, just 7.4 percent of suspensions went to white students, who make up 15 percent of city students. Hispanic students, who make up over 40 percent of students, accounted for 36 percent of suspensions.

The imbalances come amid a national discussion about racial discrimination fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement and increased scrutiny of police presence in schools.

Kesi Foster, a coordinator for the advocacy group Urban Youth Collaborative, applauded the overall reduction in suspensions, which he said reflects the education department’s pressure on schools to move away from that approach. However, he said the department will not be able to end the disparities between student groups without making that an explicit component of its discipline policies and trainings.

The school system must “struggle with those deep questions about racial inequity if we’re going to close the discipline gap,” said Foster, who is a member of a city task force on school discipline.

Suspensions have plummeted since 2012, when the city began publicly reporting those numbers. During that time, the education department also revised its discipline code to emphasize alternatives to suspension.

The department made additional changes to the code this year that required principals to get approval before suspending students for insubordination, and banned a more serious type of suspension for “minor physical altercations.” However, the number of suspensions was already on the decline last year before the new policies went into effect in April.

This summer, the discipline task force issued a report saying that a tenth of the city’s schools give out 41 percent of all suspensions. The 150-member task force recommended that the city invest in extra training and counselors for those schools and create a plan to reduce the discipline disparities among student groups, among other suggestions.

The mayor’s office promised to announce an implementation timeline for the recommendations it would adopt by the start of the school year. However, an education department spokesman said Friday that the city is still reviewing the recommendations.

In addition to revising the discipline code, the city has offered conflict resolution training to school employees and hired more guidance counselors, the spokesman said. The city is also piloting a program where school safety agents will issue “warning cards” instead of tickets.

“While we have taken important steps in the right direction, reducing the need for suspensions and keeping our schools safe remains one of my top priorities — particularly for our black and Hispanic students and our students with special needs,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement, “and we are working tirelessly toward that end.”

talking SHSAT

Love or hate the specialized high school test, New York City students take the exam this weekend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga/Chalkbeat
At a town hall this summer in Brooklyn's District 15, parents protested city plans to overhaul admissions to elite specialized high schools.

The Specialized High Schools Admissions Test has been both lauded as a fair measure for who gets accepted to the city’s most coveted high schools — and derided as the cause for starkly segregating them.

This weekend, the tense debate is likely to be far from the minds of thousands of students as they sit for the three-hour exam, which currently stands as the sole admissions criteria for vaunted schools such as Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech.

All the debate and all the policy stuff that’s been happening —  it’s just words and there really isn’t anything concrete that’s been put into place yet. So until it happens, they just continue on,” said Mahalia Watson, founder of the website Let’s Talk Schools, an online guide for parents navigating their school options.

Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer ignited a firestorm with a proposal to nix the SHSAT and instead offer admission to top middle school students across the city. Critics say the test is what segregates students, offering an advantage to families who can afford tutoring or simply are more aware of the importance of the exam. Only 10 percent of specialized high school students are black or Hispanic, compared to almost 70 percent of all students citywide.

For some, the uproar, coupled with a high profile lawsuit claiming Harvard University discriminates against Asian applicants, has only added to the pressure to get a seat at a specialized school. Asian students make up about 62 percent of enrollment at specialized high schools, and families from that community have lobbied hard to preserve the way students are admitted.

One Asian mother told Chalkbeat in an email that, while she believes in the need for programs that promote diversity, the SHSAT is “a color blind and unbiased” admissions measure. Her daughter has been studying with the help of test prep books, and now she wonders whether it will be enough.  

“In my opinion, options for a good competitive high school are very limited,” the mom wrote. “With all the recent news of the mayor trying to change the admission process to the specialized high schools and the Harvard lawsuit makes that more important for her to get acceptance.”

Last year, 28,000 students took the SHSAT, and only 5,000 were offered admission. Among this year’s crop of hopeful students is Robert Mercier’s son, an eighth grader with his sights set on High School of American Studies at Lehman College.

Mercier has encouraged his son to study for the test — even while hoping that the admissions system will eventually change. His son plays catcher on a baseball team and is an avid debater at school, activities that Mercier said are important for a well-rounded student and should be factored into admissions decisions.

“If you don’t do well on that one test but you’ve been a great student your whole career,” Mercier said, “I just don’t think that’s fair and I don’t think that’s necessarily a complete assessment of a student’s abilities or worth.”

Teacher's tale

Video: This Detroit teacher explains how she uses her classroom to ‘start a real loud revolution’

Silver Danielle Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy, tells her story at the Tale the Teacher storytelling event on October 6, 2018.

Silver Danielle Moore doesn’t just see teaching as way to pass along information to students. She views teaching as a way to bring about change.

“The work of us as educators is to start a real loud revolution,” Moore told the audience this month at a teacher storytelling event co-sponsored by Chalkbeat. “The revolution will not happen without resistance, and social justice classrooms are the instruments of that resistance.”

Moore, a teacher at the Detroit Leadership Academy charter school, was one of four Detroit educators who told their stories on stage at the Tale the Teacher event held at the Lyft Lounge at MusicTown Detroit on October 6.

The event, organized by Western International High School counselor Joy Mohammed, raised about $120 that Mohammed said she used to buy a laptop for a student who needed it to participate on the school’s yearbook staff.

Over the next few weeks, Chalkbeat will be posting videos of the stories told at the event.

Moore, a self-proclaimed “black hip-hop Jesus feminist” opened her story with a memory of leaving a teacher training session four years ago to travel to Ferguson, Missouri, to be part of Labor Day weekend protests after Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American man, was fatally shot by a police officer.

“There was so much grief but also so much fight in that place,” she recalled. “I will never forget the moment I stood at the place that Mike Brown was killed. I will never forget the look in his mother’s face.”

She recalled bringing that experience back to Detroit and to her classroom.

“Imagine, after that weekend, returning back to the classroom on September 2nd,” she said. “I fought that weekend for Mike Brown … but I also did it for the 66 kids I would have that school year and every child I have had since then.”

Watch Moore’s full story here:

Video by Colin Maloney

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