Amid the war on drugs and a series of deadly school shootings in the 1990s, districts across the country wrapped their schools in an aggressive approach to safety and order, filling hallways and lunchrooms with police officers.
When Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took over the New York City schools, he did much the same, flooding dangerous schools with police personnel and encouraging principals to strictly enforce the discipline code, even for minor infractions.
“Children cannot learn and teachers cannot teach if they are scared or intimidated,” Mr. Bloomberg said in 2002.
The number of crimes, fights and other disruptions in schools plummeted. But as the number of suspensions shot up, the city’s muscular tactics drew complaints from activists and educators who said they pushed too many children out of classrooms, and sometimes landed them in court, without necessarily creating a safer environment.
One prominent critic is now in a position to pursue a different approach: Mayor Bill de Blasio.
The de Blasio administration plans to release a new school discipline code this fall, part of a larger initiative to examine school safety, discipline, suspensions and arrests. Politically, the stakes are high for Mr. de Blasio, who gained traction in the race for mayor agitating on issues of social justice and, as with his policing strategies, will have to balance the rights of students to be treated fairly with the need for schools to remain safe.
“New York City is the largest school district in the country, so clearly we’re praying and hoping that they will become a leader in this area,” said Kathleen R. DeCataldo, executive director of the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children. “We’re all waiting with bated breath to hear the announcement of what’s going to happen.”
The expected changes in New York City mirror a national move away from zero-tolerance policies regarding misbehavior in schools. In January, the federal Education and Justice Departments issued what was termed a guidance package on how schools could keep students safe without violating federal anti-discrimination statutes. The agencies cited federal data that said African-Americans made up only 15 percent of students nationwide but represented 44 percent of students suspended more than once, and 36 percent of those expelled.
The school system Mr. Bloomberg handed his successor was safer than the one he took charge of in 2002. His administration used some new programs, along with tools inherited from previous mayors — including metal detectors and uniformed school safety agents — to bring order to schools that many educators described as being chaotic.
At the most troubled buildings, the Bloomberg administration introduced a program targeting “impact schools,” those deemed so unruly they needed closer attention. The approach made heavy use of police officers and safety agents, who are unarmed members of the Police Department, and required a swift, strict response to even minor incidents, according to a 2005 report by the New York City Joint Committee on School Safety.
“Another critical element of the Mayor’s Initiative was an intensive focus on low-level incidents, similar to the ‘broken windows’ strategy that the Police Department has used so successfully to reduce fear and disorder on the streets,” the report said.
The approach, however, attracted a chorus of critics.
“When a school goes ‘impact,’ it’s like a siege mentality,” said Charles Osewalt, who retired last year as principal of Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies in the Bronx. “The faculty doesn’t like it, the kids don’t like it and the parents don’t like it.”
According to an analysis of school suspension data by the New York Civil Liberties Union, at least 69,000 suspensions occurred each year from 2008 to 2012, a significant increase over the 48,000 suspensions recorded in the 2005-6 school year.
Keeshan Harley, who is now a 19-year-old college student and activist with Make the Road New York, an advocacy group for immigrants and other low-income New Yorkers, was suspended during his junior year because he refused to give his assistant principal his hat.
“Junior year is the most important of your high school years,” Mr. Harley said. “It is what the colleges that you apply to look at.”
In addition to committing serious crimes like assault, or possessing certain weapons, like knives, there is a wide range of infractions for which students can be suspended, including cheating, using drugs, pushing past a classmate, using an unauthorized entrance and defying authority — the offense Mr. Harley was punished for. In 2012, after complaints about the high rate of suspensions, the city said students would no longer be suspended for one-time, low-level transgressions.
The Civil Liberties Union and other advocates have also criticized the city for arresting students who acted up but could have been dealt with in school rather than in court.
While the de Blasio administration has not revealed its specific changes to the discipline code, it is examining the threshold for suspensions, and is likely to call for increased use of so-called restorative practices, like conflict resolution that involves bringing both sides together to discuss an incident rather than just meting out punishment.
“We’ve brought stakeholders together and consulted with them, we’ve looked at other school systems, and we’ve examined our own data and research — all of which we believe is a critical part of revising the school discipline code,” Devora Kaye, an Education Department spokeswoman, said in an email. “We want these reforms to create a safe and supportive learning environment in every school, and are committed to both improving safety and reducing unnecessary suspensions. Our discipline code will reflect these goals.”
The administration is also looking at a variety of other issues, including how metal detectors are used, though officials would not say whether that meant some schools might no longer have them.
At the Prospect Heights Educational Campus in Brooklyn, every student who crosses the threshold must first pass through a metal detector. Jewelry and belts are removed and stuffed into backpacks; bobby pins are tugged out of hairdos; pockets are emptied of change.
“I don’t like it,” said Tuwanna Vassell, 16, a junior at one of the schools in the building. “It makes me feel like a criminal. I don’t think the good kids should have to suffer for the bad.”
Some principals and school safety experts express concern that in an effort to back away from tough discipline, the de Blasio administration might make it harder to keep order. “If you go too far, what happens is the school administration bows to political pressure and turns a blind eye,” said Kenneth S. Trump, a school safety consultant based in Cleveland. They become reluctant, he said, “to taking the discipline and law enforcement action needed to keep a school safe.”
One principal in the Bronx, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized by the Education Department to speak publicly, said the needs of her school ran counter to the political tone of the day. She said she wanted more school safety agents, not fewer; she said that in some schools, there were high rates of suspensions because they had challenging students who required a strict hand; and she said she would have no interest in parting with her metal detectors.
“I’d love to think we don’t need it,” she said of the screening process, called scanning. “But when you see what they catch in it, they need it.”
Under Mr. Bloomberg, reported incidents in schools fell drastically. In the 2013-14 school year, the city recorded 6,950 incidents, ranging from felonies to noncriminal infractions like loitering. In 2001-2, there were nearly 16,000.
But many advocates and members of the past administration said the drop was not a result of tough enforcement measures. Instead, they pointed to factors like Mr. Bloomberg’s breaking up of large, troubled schools into smaller ones, and the decrease in crime in the city as a whole. And though the number of suspensions fell at the end of the Bloomberg administration, to 53,465 in his final full school year, school crime continued to fall as well.
The magnitude of the drop in both suspensions and incidents, though, is a matter of debate. Because schools and principals have been evaluated, in part, on their ability to keep order, administrators say the statistics, which are largely self-reported, are not necessarily reliable.
School discipline under Mr. Bloomberg was not entirely punitive, especially in his closing years, coinciding with a national movement away from zero-tolerance policies. School safety agents, long criticized by advocates as prepared more for street policing than dealing with teenagers, received more training. The discipline code was expanded to incorporate more early intervention and alternatives to traditional punishments, like peer mediation.
Dennis M. Walcott, a schools chancellor and deputy mayor for education under Mr. Bloomberg, said that though strict enforcement was a part of the administration’s approach, it was never the only method, even early on.
“People viewed ‘impact’ and our initial approach solely from a punitive point of view, whereas it really was a very blended approach, making sure to incorporate school climate and culture,” Mr. Walcott said. There was, Mr. Walcott said, a constant focus on school environment, which included concerns like bullying, and ensuring that students returning from punishments like suspensions had the support to succeed. Mr. Walcott also said that in a system of 1.1 million students, there will be instances that require arrest, but that the administration worked to ensure that students who were arrested were still able to get an education.
Ultimately, many educators say that it is not fear of consequences that creates an orderly school, but rather an environment where the children trust the adults.
“If they feel threatened or upset, they know there’s an adult they can go to,” said Stephen Duch, who retired this year as principal of Hillcrest High School in Queens. “It’s like raising kids at home. You set parameters and guidelines, but you also explain to them why.”
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