In written testimony submitted today, the New York Civil Liberties Union encouraged the Department of Education to mandate positive-discipline practices in New York City's public schools, and cautioned that zero-tolerance policies in the discipline code deprive children of their right to an education and discriminate against students of color and those with special needs.

“Education is a child’s right, not a reward for good behavior,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. “The over-reliance on suspensions, combined with aggressive policing in city schools, pushes many of our most vulnerable students from the classroom into the criminal justice system. Suspension should be a last resort, and the discipline code should be revised to reflect that.”

According to DOE data, 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.

The data shows 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 males make up roughly half of the school population.

Much of these increases can be attributed to the prevalence of suspension in the discipline code. Suspensions disproportionately affect black students and students with special needs: Black students serve more and longer suspensions than their white schoolmates; children with disabilities are suspended at four times the rate of their peers.

“The large and increasing number of suspensions represents a serious failure that disrupts children’s lives without improving school discipline,” said NYCLU Policy Counsel Samantha Pownall, who testified at a June 5 DOE hearing on the discipline code. “A smarter and more effective approach to school discipline would narrow the achievement gap, increase graduation rates and help all students succeed.”

Police personnel are also too often involved in minor disciplinary incidents, often escalating misbehavior to criminal acts. Police arrested or ticketed more than 15 students each day in New York City public schools from January through March, according to an NYCLU analysis of recent NYPD school safety data. More than 96 percent of arrests were of black or Latino students; more than 73 percent were male.

The discipline code is silent on the issue of police in schools. The document gives no indication that breaking a rule can result in an arrest, physical restraint by police, and criminal charges against the student. The DOE must at the very least to inform teachers and students of restrictions on the types of discipline situations that may result in police involvement.

To continue to reduce the number of suspensions in New York City, the NYCLU recommends that the DOE:

  • Clarify the role of School Safety Officers, NYPD employees who patrol the schools – in the Discipline Code. The code must state that School Safety Officers should not arrest or ticket students for breaking a school rule.
  • Mandate positive discipline alternatives. Without a mandate, many educators will resort to familiar punishments.
  • Eliminate zero tolerance infractions and restore discipline authority to educators.