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Testimony Regarding Proposed Changes to New York City Guidance Counselor Requirements

Testimony of Lauren Frederico on behalf of the New York Civil Liberties Union before the City Council’s Education Committee on proposed changes to the Department of Education’s reporting requirements about guidance counselors in New York City public schools.

The New York Civil Liberties Union respectfully submits the following testimony regarding our recommendations for providing adequate guidance services for students.

The NYCLU, the New York state affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union, is a not-for-profit, non-partisan organization with eight offices across New York state and nearly 50,000 members and supporters. The NYCLU’s mission is to defend and promote the fundamental principles, rights and constitutional values embodied in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution of the State of New York. Securing students’ rights is a core component of our mission, and through our youth and students’ rights program the NYCLU advocates for positive discipline systems that reduce classroom removals, suspensions, expulsions and school-based arrests. We have also spent over a decade advocating for schools to prevent and address bias-based harassment of students.

The NYCLU applauds the City Council’s efforts to increase public access to data concerning guidance services in NYC schools. For our schools and our children to be as successful as they can be, the core democratic principles of transparency, accountability and public participation in government must be respected. Increased transparency will allow educators, advocates and lawmakers to better understand the current state of services offered, identify unmet needs of school communities, and advocate for additional staffing and services as needed.

Each year we receive applications from students across the city who want to be part of our youth program, the Teen Activist Project. Part of the application asks students to identify issues in their communities and an overwhelming number of youth applicants discuss issues of school climate that include the large police presence in their schools and lack of school counselors. One 2013-2014 applicant from Manhattan wrote, “There isn’t enough time in the day for guidance with colleges throughout the school day.”

While the NYCLU believes all school staff must be trained to better identify students with unmet mental health and special education needs, we recognize School Counselors play a unique and integral role in keeping kids in school and supporting the social and emotional needs of students. Social workers, guidance counselors and psychologists are often best situated to assist students in need of mental health care referrals, provide college readiness training, and offer support to students facing issues such as bias based bullying and harassment, substance abuse, depression, community violence and family conflicts.

Unfortunately, the current staffing in New York public schools does not afford all students access to the mental health care and guidance services they need. Without adequate staffing of school counselors, commonly faced issues can become road blocks in the learning process and can prevent meaningful participation in school. Consequently, in schools without enough trained mental health care professionals, educators and school staff can become overwhelmed as the unmet needs of students lead to disruptive behavior.

Currently, the Department of Education places more School Safety Officers in schools than it does guidance counselors. With approximately 2,300 more police personnel than guidance counselors, the staffing of NEW YORK CITY schools represents a misplaced use of funding and misguided ideas about how to create safe and supportive school climates.

The New York Civil Liberties Union remains hopeful that changes to school discipline policies and practices will be made under the new administration to make alternatives to suspension and police referrals a reality system wide. However, in order to fully implement progressive discipline models, New York City schools will need to increase the number of trained mental health care professionals.

The City Council has a long and important history of promoting data transparency concerning the Department of Education. Information about students’ access to school counselors will help paint a more complete picture of existing support services and areas in need of improvement. The understaffing of school counselors has been understood as a longstanding issue among advocates, educators and students alike and we look forward to having data to support the experiences of school communities across the city. Specifically, the NYCLU will be interested to see if there are related disparities in the use of exclusionary discipline and access to school counselors based on student demographics including race and special education status and whether the staffing of school counselors has any impact on a particular school’s reliance on exclusionary discipline.

As the Council is aware, data reported under the Student Safety Act, signed into law by mayor Bloomberg in 2011, has shed light on the use of suspensions, arrests and summonses in response to perceived student misbehavior. Student Safety Act data has also helped validate the long standing concerns of community members that current school discipline practices disproportionately impact students of color and students with special needs. During the 2012-2013 school year, there were over 53,000 out-of-school-suspensions in New York City.i The vast majority were for minor infractions that can and should be handled in school by educators or school counselors, such as defying authority or talking back.ii In addition, during the 2012-2013 school year, there were 579 school-related arrests, more than two per school day.iii Seventy-six percent were for non-criminal violations or misdemeanors—disorderly conduct or fighting, for example.iv

Black students and students with special education needs are disproportionately by these practices. In the 2012-2013 school year, Black students accounted for 27.2% of the student population, but 52.8% of all suspensions.v Similarly, special education students made up just 12% of total student enrollment, but received 34.1% of all suspensions—up from 32% during the previous school Black students are also more likely than white students to be arrested in school. Along with many other advocates, the NYCLU urges the city to consider that increased support services such as guidance counselors and social workers can reduce these disparities, address minor discipline issues through positive measures, and prevent serious misbehavior that triggers a suspension.

New York City’s current approach to school discipline lags behind progressive models emerging around the country. Increasing the number of social workers and guidance counselors, as well as student access to mental health services should be a district wide priority. At a respective cost of $114,409 and $109,000 (average salary plus benefits), hiring enough social workers and guidance counselors to fully staff a targeted group of high-needs schools would represent a modest increase in the DOE’s budget and could have a big impact on suspension rates and school climate citywide.vii Expanding access to school-based mental health services, along with improving training and school protocols, would also decrease the need for EMS referrals. viii

The Department of Education has far more School Safety Officers working in schools than it does guidance counselors. With approximately 2,300 more police personnel than guidance counselors citywide, the staffing of New York City schools represents a misplaced use of funding and misguided ideas about how to create safe and supportive school climates. The total numbers of NYPD personnel are currently reported out by borough command, rather than by individual schools, leaving gaps in the public’s knowledge about how NYPD officers are distributed across schools and student demographics.

Despite the NYPD’s reluctance to provide information about police personnel by school, many students attend schools where SSOs outnumber guidance counselors and social workers combined. We also recognize the harmful message this sends to young people about the mission of our city’s educational system and the expectations for their future.

New York City has an opportunity to serve as a model for schools across the country in data transparency and positive school climate. The connection between school discipline trends and the number of school counselors must be better understood and explained to the public. The current distribution of funds prioritizes police in schools when it should be concentrated on support services. School counselors are crucial parts of the school community and can help prevent issues facing youth from becoming an educational barrier and are a necessary component of positive discipline interventions, such as counseling, when behavioral issues do arise.

We thank the Education Committee for holding an oversight hearing on guidance services available to New York City students, and for consistently promoting transparency to ensure all New York students are treated with dignity and respect and afforded a safe and supportive learning environment.

N.Y.C. Dep’t of Educ., 2012 and 2013 Annual Report on Suspensions Under the Student Safety Act (2013) [hereinafter SSA Report].
Id. See also N.Y.C. School-Justice Partnership Task Force, Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court: Report and Recommendations 4 (2013) [hereinafter Task Force Report], available at
N.Y. Civil Liberties Union, Student Safety Act Reporting on Arrests and Summonses (2013) [hereinafter NYCLU Arrest Data], available at
NYCLU Arrest Data, available at
SSA Report, supra note 1. In 2011-2012, though just 28% of total enrollment, Black students accounted for 62.5% of all arrests. NYCLU Arrest data, supra note 4. Latino students make up 29.1% of total enrollment but account for 40% of arrests. Id.
Task Force Report, supra note 2 (finding that a majority of suspensions are concentrated among a small number of schools).
SSA Report, supra note 1; Task Force Report, supra note 2
These steps are lead recommendations of the Campaign for Effective Behavioral Health Supports for Students.

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