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Column: Reporting on Student Suspensions is the First Step (New York Times School Book Blog)

By Udi Ofer

We have known for years that the New York Police Department handcuffs misbehaving schoolchildren as young as 5. But just how deep and wide the use of punitive tactics against young children has been unclear — until now.

Figures released last week by the City Department of Education show that city schools suspended 5-year-olds at least 35 times and 6-year-olds at least 107 times in the last year alone. That is 142 students who are not old enough to pick out their own clothes but were deemed a big enough threat that they needed to be suspended. It was the first time the city released these numbers under the Student Safety Act, which was passed last year. The act, which my organization pushed for, will require the Department of Education to report on student suspensions twice a year and the City Police Department to report arrests and summonses by school safety officers four times a year.

I commend the city’s Department of Education for reporting the 2010-11 data in a timely manner — as required by city law. That is more than we can say for the Police Department, which is already three months late in meeting its obligations to report on arrests and summonses by school safety officers.

But the praise for the Department of Education, unfortunately, ends there.

Student suspensions continue to be through the roof under the Bloomberg administration, with black children and children with special needs hardest hit.

In Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s first year in control of city schools, the Education Department issued 31,879 suspensions. This past school year, there were 73,441 suspensions, a whopping increase of 130 percent.

Throughout Mr. Bloomberg’s tenure, black children and children with special needs have consistently served about 53 percent and 30 percent of all suspensions, despite representing approximately 32 percent and 14 percent of students.

Moreover, according to the unredacted data released last week, schools with a majority of students from low-income families dish out, on average, one and a half times as many suspensions as other schools.

When most people hear a child was suspended, they assume there was a severe disciplinary problem — that the suspended student is just a “bad kid.”

But a large portion of suspensions are for infractions like insubordination and horseplay, raising concerns that children are being subjected to exclusionary punishments for subjective and minor violations. In Susan Wagner High School on Staten Island, for example, 61 percent of “principal’s suspensions” (five days or less) were for insubordination or horseplay. Similarly, 65 percent of principal’s suspensions in the Academy for Scholarship and Entrepreneurship in the Bronx were for those two infractions.

There is no credible evidence that suspension is an effective method to correct student misbehavior — but we do know that students who are suspended once are more likely to be suspended again and to be involved in the legal system.

In contrast, alternative programs like mediation, counseling, conflict resolution and restorative justice offer real-world examples of dealing with minor infractions in a positive, effective way.

Unfortunately, the Department of Education has shown a general unwillingness to invest in alternative programs in the same way that it invests in punitive disciplinary measures. City schools employ about 1,000 more police personnel than guidance counselors and social workers combined (5,400 police to 3,000 guidance counselors and 1,400 social workers).

Teachers must be able to respond swiftly and effectively to misbehavior in their classrooms. But the Department of Education must also provide teachers with alternative mechanisms to address misbehavior.

Suspensions should be the tactic of last resort — with alternative interventions exhausted first. Sadly, under Mayor Bloomberg, suspensions have become the tactic of first resort in too many situations.

The data released thus far by the Department of Education has shed much-needed light on the situation in schools. But the data still leaves many questions. To show a fuller picture of the impact of city policy on our students, the department should:

Release data to show the total suspensions for each category of information already reported — for instance, by race, sex, and grade. Since these numbers are aggregates from the citywide population, releasing it raises no privacy concerns.

Stop automatically suppressing categories that include fewer than 10 suspensions. This practice, while motivated by an important desire to protect student privacy, is not mandated by federal law. The absurdity of the practice is revealed in the data that the Department of Education already reports to the state: a school that issues one or six suspensions will be reported on the state’s report card as having one or six suspensions, but in the reporting by the Department of Education under city law it is suppressed. The suppression requirement comes from city law, and should be revised.

I am encouraged that we are finally talking about student suspensions. The reason that the New York Civil Liberties Union and other advocates called for passage of the Student Safety Act was to allow for precisely this type of discourse by the public and policymakers. We may have disagreements on the problems and solutions, but at least we can now have a conversation that is based on facts.

Udi Ofer is the advocacy director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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