More than 100 people crowded onto the steps of City Hall earlier this week to protest what they said were skyrocketing suspension rates and urge the city to change the way they discipline students.
“They are using punitive and harsh measures for something as simple as chewing gum, writing on a desk or walking to the bathroom without a pass,” said Roksana Mun, a campaign organizer at the Jackson Heights-based Desis Rising Up and Moving, or DRUM. “It’s literally for these small, petty, minor things that students are getting suspended.”
DRUM was one of a number of organizations that participated in Tuesday’s protest that was organized by the Dignity in Schools Campaign. Dignity in Schools is an umbrella organization that includes smaller nonprofits, including DRUM.
The protest was held just before an annual public hearing on the city Department of Education’s discipline code on Tuesday evening.
Dignity in Schools officials said the number of suspensions in city public schools has jumped from 48,741 in 2001 to 73,943 in the 2008-09 school year. DOE officials said they cannot confirm this data because suspension data was handled at the school level until 2006, after which the DOE took over the responsibility.
Protesters charged that more minorities are suspended than their white counterparts, and according to Dignity in Schools, black students make up 33 percent of the public school population, but receive 53 percent of the suspensions.
A DOE spokeswoman said “race is not a factor in suspension decisions.”
Dignity in School representatives did say that the DOE has made positive changes to the discipline code over the last two years, including adding approaches that encourage schools to implement “positive behavior interventions and support” programs and “restorative justice” approaches in lieu of out-of-school suspensions. As part of these approaches, students would, for example, work with individuals they have problems with and would remain in school so they do not fall behind.
“Too many schools are practicing zero tolerance, giving harsh suspensions that remove children from the classroom for misbehavior that could be addressed through positive and effective interventions,” said Avni Bhatia of Advocates for Children.
DOE officials said they are working hard to reduce the number of suspensions and incorporate supportive discipline measures. For example, a city spokeswoman said in 2009 the DOE gave principals the flexibility to make decisions about whether offenses like aggressive fighting, which previously mandated suspension, could be better dealt with through intervention with the student’s family.
The DOE said schools also provide counseling services for students, peer mediation and conflict resolution.