In testimony delivered today at a New York City Council joint-committee hearing on school safety and student discipline, the New York Civil Liberties Union urged lawmakers to strengthen the reporting requirements in the Student Safety Act – a 2011 city law that requires regular reporting by the DOE and NYPD on school safety and disciplinary issues, including student suspensions and arrests.

Specifically, the NYCLU asked council members to reduce the amount of redactions the city Department of Education (DOE) makes to suspension data released under the Student Safety Act.

"The Student Safety Act is a powerful tool for bringing transparency to the city’s school safety and disciplinary policies, but it can be improved," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said. "Far too much of the suspension data being reported is blacked out. In fact, we only learn of the total number of suspensions through DOE press releases every reporting period. Better transparency will allow educators, advocates and lawmakers to craft better school disciplinary polices."

Currently, the DOE makes redactions when there are fewer than 10 suspensions in any particular category of information for a given school over a reporting period. The effect of this is that the DOE’s suspension reports to the City Council are heavily redacted – about 34 percent of the data is blacked out. The overall number of suspensions and the total number of suspensions in each category are reported selectively. For example, the DOE provides the total number of suspensions of black students, but does not give the total number of suspensions for horseplay. In certain categories, redactions are more common than data points, making it impossible to sum up totals that far exceed nine. The heavy redactions make it difficult to fully analyze the suspension data.

The NYCLU recommends limiting the redactions to instances where there are less than five suspensions for a given infraction at a particular school. Doing so would enhance the quality of the data available to the public while protecting the privacy rights of individual students.

Victoria Ziemkowski, a senior at Susan E. Wagner High School in Staten Island and a member of the NYCLU’s Teen Activist Project, testified about the effects of zero-tolerance discipline policies at her school, which reported 699 suspensions last school year – the most citywide.

"Too many of my fellow students are missing vital class time because they’ve been suspended for minor misbehavior like insubordination," Ziemkowski said. "The DOE should fix the discipline code to make it a policy of understanding rather than a policy of zero-tolerance."

In addition to calling for improvements to the Student Safety Act, the NYCLU also calls on the City Council to:

  • Monitor the implementation of the Discipline Code in schools, including out-of-school suspensions for behavior that is constitutionally protected and minor misbehavior for which more tailored responses are adequate;
  • Require the use of alternatives to suspension where appropriate;
  • Limit the role of police in schools to responding to emergencies where safety is compromised; require their collaboration with administrators in all situations.