Back to All Testimony

The Impact of School Suspensions, and a Demand for Passage of the Student Safety Act

Testimony Of Donna Lieberman On Behalf Of The New York Civil Liberties Union before The New York City Council Committees On Education And Civil Rights Regarding The Impact Of Suspensions On Students’ Education Rights

Council Member Jackson and members of the City Council’s Education and Civil Rights Committees: My name is Donna Lieberman, and I appear before you today on behalf of the New York Civil Liberties Union (“NYCLU”) and its 48,000 members statewide. Since 1951, the NYCLU has been the state’s leading advocate on behalf of New Yorkers’ civil rights and civil liberties.

In March 2007, the NYCLU released a report on the impact of DOE and NYPD disciplinary and safety policies on the educational environment in the schools. The report examined the origins and the consequences of the city’s aggressive policing operation in the schools, and provided analyses of the results of a broad student survey performed by the NYCLU and profiles of individual students whose experiences illuminate the problems with policing in schools. The report included numerous stories of instances in which school and police personnel meted out harsh punishment in situations that should have been resolved through counseling, conflict mediation, and similar supportive methods. The report included an analysis of student suspension practices, and found that the length and duration of student suspensions had increased significantly, under circumstances where school officials were failing to adhere to their obligation to provide suspended students with alternative educational services that were real and meaningful.

Students and teachers are entitled to a safe educational environment that is conducive to both teaching and learning. A school’s authority to suspend a student plays an important role in securing such an environment. Yet too often suspensions also serve as a quick fix for student disciplinary problems that demand a more supportive response. In the long term, many student suspensions hamper, rather than improve student safety. Such suspensions impact students long after the suspension has been served.

I testify today to urge the City Council to closely examine suspension practices in the city’s public schools and to create mechanisms for greater accountability and oversight of school disciplinary practices, including suspensions. As my testimony will indicate, student suspensions play a pivotal role in perpetuating the “School to Prison Pipeline,” both nationally and in New York City. It is time for the City Council to stem the flow of students into the criminal justice system, and support corrective measures, such as those contained in the Student Safety Act1.

Suspensions Perpetuate the School to Prison Pipeline

The School to Prison Pipeline describes local, state and federal education and public safety policies that operate to push students out of school and into the criminal justice system. This system disproportionately impacts youth of color and youth with disabilities. Inequities in areas such as school discipline, policing practices, and high-stakes testing contribute to the pipeline.

The School to Prison Pipeline operates directly and indirectly. Schools directly send students into the pipeline through zero tolerance policies that involve the police in minor incidents, which too often lead to arrests, juvenile detention referrals, and even incarceration. Schools indirectly push students into the criminal justice system by excluding them from school through suspension, expulsion, discouragement and high stakes testing requirements.

Suspensions, often the first stop along the pipeline, play a crucial role in pushing students from the school system and into the criminal justice system. Research shows a clear correlation between suspensions and both low achievement and dropping out of school altogether2. Such research also demonstrates a link between dropping out of school and incarceration later in life. Specifically, students who have been suspended are three times more likely to drop out by the 10th grade than students who have never been suspended3. Dropping out in turn triples the likelihood that a person will be incarcerated later in life4. In fact, in 1997, 68 percent of state prison inmates were school dropouts5.

Despite the poor outcomes associated with suspensions, schools across the nation have seen an explosion in the number of suspensions and expulsions, mainly due to zero tolerance policies that rely heavily on harsh disciplinary practices. Originally meant to address only the most serious violent behavior, zero tolerance policies now too often target normal, non-violent behavior, even though schools nationwide continue to benefit from a fourteen year steady decrease in violent and non-violent crime in public schools6.

In 2006, the American Psychological Association found that zero tolerance policies have been ineffective in reducing violence in schools and have instead increased disciplinary problems and dropout rates in middle schools and high schools, as well as the number of referrals to the juvenile justice system for minor infractions once handled by educators in the schools7. The report also found that zero tolerance policies have led to an over-representation of students of color in school discipline processes.

The national racial disparities in school discipline are indeed profound. Nationwide, black students are 2.6 times more likely to be suspended than white students8. Black students, who make up only 17 percent of the nation’s student population, account for 36 percent of out of school suspensions and 31 percent of expulsions9. This disparity has been on the rise during the recent ascendancy of zero tolerance, with 6 percent of black students and 3 percent of white students being suspended at least once in 1973 compared to 14 percent of blacks and 5 percent of whites in 200310. Black students with learning disabilities are even more vulnerable to both suspension and incarceration. They are three times more likely than white students with learning disabilities to be removed from school and four times more likely to be placed in a correctional institution11. Our nation’s over-reliance on suspensions and other exclusions from school continues to limit the futures of our most vulnerable youth – students of color, low income students, and students with special needs.

NYC’s Education System: De Facto Zero Tolerance Policies that Push Certain Populations Out of School

Despite the range of options available for disciplinary action outlined in the Discipline Code, students in New York City’s public schools are being routinely subjected to the harshest available option: long term suspension. Superintendent suspensions increased by 76 percent between 2000 and 2005, jumping from 8,567 to 15,090 a year12. In addition to formal suspensions – both superintendent’s and principals – students are also subject to removal from class by a teacher –teacher suspensions – which can result in significant loss of class time.

New York City is also part of the trend of increased racial disparities with respect to suspension practices. The 2001 suspension rate for City schools was 8.3 percent for black students and 4.8 percent for Latino students, compared to only 2.5 percent for white students13. The over reliance on suspensions at Impact Schools, largely attended by low income students of color, further exacerbates the racial disparity in our city’s school discipline practices. Average suspensions at Impact Schools increased by 22.4 percent in the first year of the program, compared to a citywide increase of only 2.7 percent14. The eagerness with which struggling – or “Spotlight” – students at these schools are suspended or transferred to alternative programs is of equal cause for concern.

The quality of education at the City’s suspension sites – or Alternative Learning Centers – are also of serious concern. We have received reports of inappropriate or non-existent learning materials, overcrowding, and lack of supervision at these placements. It is not surprising that these sites have an attendance rate of less than 35 percent or that students sent to these placements often drop out of school altogether.

The City’s Second Opportunity Schools for students suspended for a year also merit a second look. Although some of these schools are exemplary in their support of at risk students, many are simply sites at which to warehouse struggling students until they are “counseled out” – i.e. encouraged to enroll in an alternative or GED program – or simply drop out. Some students return to their original school and face suspension after suspension without access to support services until they, too, are forced to attend an alternative program or drop out of school altogether. As I mentioned previously, dropping out of school is a major predictor of future incarceration. By suspending our students en masse, we are pushing more and more young people out of school and towards prison.

The Need for the Student Safety Act

There is a vital need in New York City for raw data on school disciplinary practices. Education Law §2802 mandates specific reporting to the commissioner on disciplinary issues, including the age and grade of the student involved, and the location and type of incident. This law also requires information on any disciplinary action taken, including out of school suspension, involuntary transfer to an alternative placement, in-school suspension, referral to the juvenile justice system and the duration of the disciplinary action.

Currently, this data is not publicly available, even to advocates who have made repeated requests—both informally and formally—for this information. The New York State School Report Cards for New York City specifically exclude in-school suspensions, and count repeat suspensions of individual students only once. The report cards also do not provide information about the reasons for the suspensions, the duration of each suspension, and information on the students who face suspensions.

Moreover, these report cards include the number of students who transferred to GED programs and those who dropped out, but not those who transferred to other alternative programs or never returned from an Alternative Learning Center or Second Opportunity School. New York City’s Annual School Report Supplements purport to track transfers to other schools as well as drop outs through the broad category of “leavers,” defined as “students who left school for any reason.”

The difference between a student who is suspended three times in one year for disruptive behavior in Math class, but does not receive support services – or tutoring in Math! – at her Alternative Learning Center and is finally counseled to enroll in a GED program, and a student who drops out of her own volition is extremely important. As we work to find ways to support all of our students, we must be cognizant of this difference and the number of students to which it applies. To fully understand and address the impact of New York City’s over-reliance on suspensions, public access to consistent, reliable data on suspensions and other exclusions from school is essential.

The Student Safety Act makes the data necessary for reforming our disciplinary system publicly available. Passage of this bill will give the needed access to data on all types of suspensions and expulsions broken down by school, student race, gender, age, and special education status, as well as the duration of the exclusion. The bill also mandates a description of each incident that led to the disciplinary action. In addition, the bill requires reporting on all students who have left any Department of Education school, whether due to dropping out or transfer to an alternative school, GED program or detention facility as well as their race, gender, age and special education status. This information will be essential as we attempt to address the educational outcomes of students who are currently lost in the system, either between schools or out of school.

Like you, we are principally concerned with ensuring the success of all New York City students. Improved access to data and increased scrutiny of our school disciplinary system will only expand the educational opportunities of our students.





1 During the last Education Committee hearing on school disciplinary policies, held on October 10, 2007, we recommended for the City Council to introduce the Student Safety Act. Despite widespread support among the committee members, the City Council is yet to introduce this important piece of legislation.

2 Goertz, M.E., Pollack, J.M. & Rock, D.A. (196). Who drops out of high school and why?: Findings from a national study. Teachers College Record, 87, 357-73, available at

3 Ibid.

4 Coalition for Juvenile Justice. Abandoned in the Back Row: New Lessons in Education and Delinquency Prevention. 2001 Annual Report, available at

5 Ogletree, Charles J. Testimony: Jena 6 and the Role of Federal Intervention in Hate Crimes and Race-Related Violence in Public Schools. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. October 16, 2007. Available at

6 Zero Tolerance and School Discipline. The Civil Rights Project, available at

7 Skiba, Rusell et al. Are Zero Tolerance Policies Effective in the Schools? An Evidentiary Review and Recommendations. APA Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2006. Available at

8 Ogletree, Charles J. Testimony: Jena 6 and the Role of Federal Intervention in Hate Crimes and Race-Related Violence in Public Schools. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. October 16, 2007. Available at

9 Elementary and Secondary School Survey 2002. Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education.

10 Ogletree, Charles J. Testimony: Jena 6 and the Role of Federal Intervention in Hate Crimes and Race-Related Violence in Public Schools. House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. October 16, 2007. Available at

11 Wald, Johanna and Daniel Losen (May 2003). Defining and redirecting a School-to-Prison Pipeline, p. 3. Available at

12 NYC DOE Statistics.

13 Eskenazi, Michael, Gillian Eddins and John M. Beam. Equity of Exclusion: The Dynamics of Resources, Demographics, and Behavior in the New York City Public Schools. Fordham University: National Center for Schools and Communities. October 2003. Available at

14 National Economic and Social Rights Initiative (2007). Deprived of Dignity: Degrading Treatment and Abusive Discipline in New York City and Los Angeles Public Schools, p. 20.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
© 2024 New York
Civil Liberties Union