Black, Low-Income and Special Needs Students Pushed Out through Suspensions and Arrests, NYCLU Analysis Finds

October 29, 2013 —  Black and low-income youth and students with special needs are disproportionately suspended and arrested in New York City public schools, a new report released today by the New York Civil Liberties Union shows. The report also includes new data that links suspension patterns to the NYPD’s unconstitutional stop-and-frisk practices.

“Our children’s constitutional right to an education is being undermined by the excessive NYPD role in routine matters of school discipline,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “The DOE’s overreliance on suspensions and the importation of police street tactics to the classroom are combining to force the most vulnerable youth out of school and into the criminal justice system.”

The report, A, B, C, D, STPP: How School Discipline Feeds the School-to-Prison Pipeline, documents how Bloomberg-era policy changes have dramatically increased the number of NYPD personnel and metal detectors in the schools, and how zero tolerance practices have skyrocketed.

“There is no clearer demonstration of the School to Prison Pipeline than when a disciplinary interaction between a student and police personnel leads to a student’s arrest,” said the report’s author, NYCLU Attorney and Equal Justice Works Fellow Samantha Pownall. “The next mayor, the DOE and the NYPD must work together to return discipline to the hands of educators, and reduce reliance on suspensions, summonses and arrests.”

Over the last decade, the suspension rate has more than doubled, from less than 29,000 in 2001 to nearly 70,000 in 2011. Despite small declines in recent years, dramatic disparities persist: Black students, who make up less than a third of total public school students (29 percent), served half (50 percent) of all 2010-11 suspensions. The NAACP Legal Defense fund called these policies “among the most aggressive and explicit School-to-Prison Pipeline policies in the country.”

Among the report’s findings:

  • Students who live in areas where stop-and-frisk activity is high – such as East New York, Brownsville, Mott Haven, Jamaica and Harlem – are the most likely to be suspended from school (see map and Table 1).
  • District 7 in the South Bronx had the highest suspension rate in the city – and also the highest enrollment of low-income students (see Table 2).
  • Students with special needs are suspended twice as often as general education students.
  • Black students with special needs serve 14 percent of overall suspensions, yet represent only 6 percent of total enrollment.
  • White students serve only 7 percent of overall suspensions, yet make up 14 percent of total enrollment.
  • During the Bloomberg administration, the number of NYPD “school safety" officers has increased by 35 percent, bringing the total to at least 5,400 officers – even though no evidence clearly links the decline of major crimes in city schools to the expanded police presence.
  • Students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch (FLE) constitute two-thirds of New York City student population, but serve three-fourths of total suspensions.
  • The racial disparities evident in the suspension data are amplified in arrests. More than 60 percent of all school arrests in New York involve black youth, who comprise less than a third of enrolled students. An arrested student is twice as likely to drop out of school -- and dropouts are eight times more likely to land in jail.

Disproportionate school discipline reinforces the challenges faced by many students who are already less likely to graduate. Bloomberg’s 2003 disciplinary plan, Impact Schools, called for an immediate, consistent, response to even the most minor violation of a school’s disciplinary policy, and a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule. Such zero-tolerance policies have been widely discredited as discriminatory and ineffective. Under the mayor’s policy, a student in a school with metal detectors caught with a cell phone may be treated as if he or she has smuggled in drugs or a weapon. These zero-tolerance policies have eroded federal protections that require public schools to carefully examine the connections between disability and behavior.

“The systematic use of zero-tolerance policies coupled with the expanded police presence at school shows just how readily Mayor Bloomberg has imported the NYPD’s ‘Broken Windows’ approach to policing New York City’s streets to the city’s schools,” said NYCLU Advocacy Director Johanna Miller. “The administration has taken the disciplinary power out of the hands of educators and put it into the hands of ill-equipped police personnel. As a result, flashpoints of confrontation between students and police over minor infractions too often escalate, resulting in students being ticketed, handcuffed, suspended or even arrested.”

As the largest school district in the country, New York City is uniquely poised to serve as a national model for dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline. The next mayor will have the opportunity to overhaul the DOE’s ineffective, disproportionately punitive school discipline system.

The report offers the following recommendations to the DOE and the next mayoral administration:

  • Close loopholes in the Student Safety Act to improve public disclosure of comprehensive data on school suspensions and law enforcement activity. Under current law, the NYPD and New York City’s DOE must report relevant demographic information about suspension summonses and arrests, but amendments are needed to plug significant loopholes. For example, the NYPD does not report data on handcuffing in schools, or arrests and summonses in schools conducted by police officers.
  • Eliminate zero tolerance in the discipline code and in practice. These problematic policies equate the most serious misbehavior with the most trivial.
  • End the criminalization of school discipline. This requires overhauling the agreement between the NYPD and the DOE to limit the role of school safety officers and ensure their activities are consistent with sound educational practices.
  • Ensure adequate training for police personnel who work in the schools. School safety officers must be meaningfully trained alongside educators in topics including child adolescent development and psychology, cultural competency, de-escalation and conflict resolution, and restorative justice approaches.
  • Inform parents and students of their rights, and honor due process and special education protections. While students are guaranteed protections before their right to an education can be taken away through a suspension, those protections are often ignored or simply not communicated to families in the first place.
  • Implement positive behavioral supports in all schools, and train all adults in each building. Studies of other large urban school districts such as Los Angeles, Baltimore, Buffalo and Denver have documented that these supportive approaches to school discipline, such as positive behavior interventions, counseling and mentoring, help foster a safe learning environment and contribute higher graduation rates for all students.