Soaring NYC Suspension Rate Disproportionately Impacts Black Students and Students with Special Needs

November 30, 2011 —  The Bloomberg administration’s over-reliance on suspensions and police in public schools harms the ability of the most vulnerable New York City children to succeed academically, and disproportionately affects black students and students with special needs, the New York Civil Liberties Union argued today in testimony before the New York City Council.

“Education is a right, not a reward for good behavior,” New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “But under the Bloomberg administration, the suspension rate in the city’s schools has more than doubled and children have been handcuffed and arrested for breaking school rules. This overly harsh approach to discipline creates a hostile school climate and pushes children who need help the most from the classroom and into the criminal justice system.”

The NYCLU testified today at a hearing of the City Council’s Education Committee on recently released New York City Department of Education (DOE) data showing that city students served 73,441 suspensions during the 2010-2011 school year – a more than 130 percent increase in suspensions from the 2002-2003 school year, the first year under mayoral control of schools, when there were 31,879 suspensions.

According to the data, black students accounted for about 30 percent of enrollment and more than 50 percent of suspensions. Students with special needs, just 15 percent of the population, served more than 30 percent of suspensions. Moreover, among the 557 schools for which data was fully reported, 65 percent of suspensions were of male students even though male students make up roughly half of the school system’s population.

Multiple studies have demonstrated a link between suspensions and students’ failure to achieve in the classroom and graduate. Researchers at Indiana University determined that a school’s adherence to zero tolerance discipline – automatically imposing harsh discipline regardless of the circumstances – is second only to poverty as a predictor of students’ poor performance on standardized tests. A study reported in the Journal of School Psychology suggested that students who are suspended from school are 26 percent more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system than their peers.

Data from New York City and school districts around the nation show that the zero-tolerance approach to school discipline has a discriminatory impact.

“If Mayor Bloomberg is truly committed to his Young Men’s Initiative, he will take meaningful steps to reduce the suspension rate and provide a positive school climate for all city students,” Lieberman said. “A smarter and more effective approach to school discipline would narrow the achievement gap, increase graduation rates and help all students succeed.”

The suspension data was disclosed this month pursuant to the Student Safety Act – a new city law that requires the DOE to provide the City Council annual and bi-annual reports on the numbers and types of student suspensions citywide.

The DOE’s report – the first submitted under the Student Safety Act – did not include some basic information, including citywide breakdowns of student suspensions by race and ethnicity, and the number of students with special needs who were suspended. That information is available only because the DOE included it in a press advisory that accompanied release of the suspension data.

The NYCLU is calling on the City Council to amend the Student Safety Act to require the DOE to provide citywide totals on suspensions for each reporting category.

“The public cannot just hope that the DOE will regularly disclose this information,” NYCLU Advocacy Director Udi Ofer said. “The public deserves a complete picture of zero-tolerance discipline’s effect on our students and the DOE should be required to provide it.”

The NYCLU is also calling on the DOE to reduce its reliance on suspensions by implementing proven alternative to zero tolerance discipline.

Earlier this year, the NYCLU released Education Interrupted, a report documenting the sharp increase in the number and length suspensions during the Bloomberg administration.