En EspaƱol Know Your Rights
Source: Gotham Gazette
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

The Crackdown on New York City Students

Last
month, a 5-year-old kindergarten student in a Queens
public school threw a temper tantrum. After being taken to the school office,
he shoved some things off his principal’s desk. In response, a school safety
agent handcuffed the child, and school officials sent him to a psychiatric ward
for evaluation – even after a babysitter arrived on the scene asking to take
the boy home.

The
incident made the front page of the Daily News, and Schools Chancellor Joel
Klein expressed concern about it. Unfortunately, though, it was not an isolated
occurrence. Instead the incident at the Queens school represented an extension
of the even more abusive discipline used in middle and high schools across New York City.

A heavy
police presence and discipline policies that rely on punitive zero-tolerance
approaches, are denying students their fundamental human rights to a quality
education and to be treated with dignity.

Police in the Hallways

The New
York Police Department employs and supervises more than 5,000 school safety
agents. An additional 200 armed police officers patrol New York City schools. This massive presence
would make the city police department’s school safety division the fifth largest
police force in the country – larger than the police forces of Washington DC,
Detroit, Boston or Las Vegas. This uniformed force creates a prison-like
environment and results in police getting involved in school disciplinary
matters that used to be dealt with by a visit to the principal’s office.

Interviews
with students documented in reports by the National Economic and Social Rights
Initiative, the New York Civil Liberties Union and other organizations reveal
that students are harassed, handcuffed, patted down and in some cases arrested
for shouting in hallways, being late to school, and talking back to teachers
and safety personnel. This kind of misconduct, while inappropriate, is fairly
typical adolescent behavior that should be dealt with by educational staff.
Even being involved in a fight, does not make a student a criminal. Safety
agents can play an important role in schools, but they need better training and
clear guidelines for how and when to intervene. Analysis of data from the
Department of Education by the NYCLU found that police are increasingly
involved in non-criminal incidents in school. During the 2004-2005 academic
year, 77 percent of police incidents in schools with permanent metal detectors
(those the Department of Education deems dangerous) were for non-criminal
incidents, compared to only 6 percent for major crimes.

Harsh and Unequal
Punishment

The use
of suspensions in schools is also increasing. Between 2000 and 2005, the number
of superintendent suspensions (involving more serious conduct and lasting for
six days to as much as a year) rose by more than 76 percent, from 8,567 a year
to 15,090. Students can get suspended for up to 90 days for "engaging in
intimidating" behavior or "threatening" a student or staff
member, and as many as 10 days for "being insubordinate." The
definitions of these infractions are quite vague and punishment can be applied
unevenly, with devastating consequences for the academic development of
children.

Under
these vague standards, African American and Latino students are suspended at
disproportionate rates. For example, in 2004, African American students made up
33 percent of the enrollment in New
York City schools, but accounted for 52 percent of
out-of-school suspensions, according to data from the U.S. Office of Civil
Rights.

Without
question, police presence and school suspensions are distributed unequally,
disproportionately targeting students of color from poor communities. About 82
percent of students in schools with permanent metal detectors are African
American or Latino, compared to the average of 71 percent citywide, according
to data analyzed by the civil liberties union. These same schools with
permanent metal detectors and heavy police presence are also some of the most
overcrowded and resource-starved schools in New York City. For example, schools with
permanent metal detectors are 18 percent over capacity, compared with the
citywide average of 6 percent.

Disrupted Learning

Police
incidents and suspensions have a devastating impact on a student’s education.
Students told interviewers from the National Economic and Social Rights
Initiative that a suspension of even one week is "a lot of class
time" to miss. Being forced from school for two weeks or more resulted in
students falling behind, missing tests they were not allowed to make up, and
even failing classes, leading to summer school or repeating a semester.

Not
surprisingly, this contributes to the dropout rate. The National Center for
Education Statistics found that 31 percent of students who had been suspended
three or more times before the spring of their sophomore year dropped out of
school. Only 6 percent of students who had never been suspended left school
without a high school diploma.

Looking at the
Alternatives

To
address these destructive policies, New
York City schools first need to improve monitoring and
accountability for school safety agents, police and suspension policies. A
coalition of organizations in New York
City has called for the City Council to adopt the
Student Safety Act. This measure would create mechanisms for students to file
complaints against school safety agents and would require the education
department and the police to report to the City Council about police incidents
and suspensions, including providing breakdowns by race. The coalition includes
Advocates for Children, the Correctional Association, Make the Road New York, National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, the New
York Civil Liberties Union, Teachers Unite, the Urban Youth Collaborative and
the Children’s Defense Fund – New
York.

Beyond
this, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way schools deal with
discipline and safety. Discipline should be a part of the educational mission
of our schools and focus on conflict resolution, positive behavioral skills and
providing students with mediation, counseling and support.

The
Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified human rights
treaty in the world, states that school systems must "ensure that school
discipline is administered in a manner consistent with the child’s human
dignity." Used by school systems in countries around the world, the
convention states that school policies must not violate the dignity of
students, cause mental or physical humiliation or harm, or criminalize
adolescent behavior. Instead, "the education of the child shall be
directed to the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and
physical abilities to their fullest potential." The New York City Council
in 1989 embraced these principles when it passed a resolution (Resolution 1891)
supporting the Convention on the Rights of the Child and acknowledging that
children have the right to "education and the right to develop in a safe
environment free from discrimination."

Research
and best practices from school districts around the country support this
approach. For example, a growing number of school districts have implemented
Positive Behavior Intervention and Support or PBIS. It aims to prevent conflict
and behavior problems, along with student suspensions and other extreme
punishment, by making sure students understand what is expected of them and
helping students meet those expectations. This approach provides assistance for
students with chronic behavior problems and seeks to involve families and the
community.

In Illinois, over 150
school districts have adopted some type of PBIS. One study found that in 12
Chicago public schools implementing it, the percent of students who received
six or more disciplinary referrals fell by more than half over three years,
from 6 percent to 2 percent.

In
February 2007, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest
district in the country after New York City, passed a new policy to implement
School-wide Positive Behavior Support, its version of PBIS. Policy makers at
the federal level also have begun to take notice. Last September, Senators
Barack Obama and Richard Durbin and Representative Phil Hare, all of Illinois, introduced the
Positive Behavior for Effective Schools Act, which would allow school districts
to use federal funds for Positive Behavior Intervention and Support and other
preventive approaches to discipline.

New York City, though, has so far remained on
the sidelines. It is time for the people who run the nation’s largest public
school system to acknowledge the devastating impact their punitive and
sometimes draconian policies are having on our children and implement positive
and preventive discipline that will create nurturing environments and keep
students in school.