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Op-Ed: Excessive Discipline Harmful (Albany Times Union)


By Donna Lieberman

The state Legislature left important business undone when its session ended last week. It failed to even consider the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. How much longer will legislators ignore the harm of excessive disciplinary practices in our schools — arrests, summonses and suspensions — and the racially discriminatory impacts on children’s education? Schools should be places where all children have the opportunity to develop social, educational and emotional tools to succeed. But children across the country, including in New York, are regularly denied the education and support they deserve.

New U.S. Department of Education data show that nearly 1.6 million students go to schools that employ a law enforcement officer but no guidance counselor. In New York, hundreds of students each year are arrested and thousands spend weeks or months suspended from school. Far from being a last resort, shockingly nearly 1 in 10 students is suspended annually — that’s more than 500 suspensions a day of even preschoolers, often for minor misbehavior. In some schools, students are marched into police precincts and forced to answer in criminal court for minor infractions. The message to our young people is that they are dangerous, distrusted and unwelcome. That wrong message is heard especially by students of color, who are far more likely than their white counterparts to be subjected to extreme discipline for comparable misbehavior.

Nationally, the latest federal data show that, nationally, racial disparities start as early as preschool: Black children represent 19 percent of all preschoolers, but 47 percent of those suspended. In New York City’s schools, black students comprised more than half of those suspended in 2014, even though they made up only a quarter of the student population.

Students with special needs are also disproportionately targeted. One New York principal sought a full-year suspension for a Latino student with diagnosed emotional disabilities who flicked a pencil at his teacher. Misconduct for sure — though no one was hurt — but the school’s response was way out of proportion, ignored the student’s disability and offered none of the help he needed to learn to behave.

The harm and disparities that result from extreme discipline are so pronounced the U.S. Department of Education has warned districts they may be liable for civil rights violations. There is no evidence that this hyper-aggressive discipline makes our schools any safer. But there is evidence of its enormous toll on children’s futures. When schools suspend a student, even just once, that child is twice as likely to drop out, and does not perform as well academically. When schools have a student arrested, that child is four times more likely to drop out.

Far from coddling kids, the Safe and Supportive Schools Act, sponsored by Assembly members Catherine Nolan and Latrice Walker, provides mechanisms to turn misbehavior into teachable moments. It requires that discipline policies draw from evidence-based best practices and school staff be trained on restorative programs. The act clearly identifies circumstances when removals, suspensions and expulsions may be used and requires schools to clearly define the disciplinary process and students’ rights. Police would be engaged only in true emergencies.

Moreover, it protects children’s education: Students excluded from the classroom would continue to receive appropriate instruction so they don’t fall behind, and at the end of their suspensions, they would be effectively reintroduced to their classrooms with care. It is a shame for New York that state legislators did not pass this critical legislation before the end of the session. Our legislators say they really care about children. It’s time they passed this common sense measure to give them the education they deserve.

Donna Lieberman is executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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