When Abeer Ahmed got into a fight as a sophomore at Queens Collegiate High School in Jamaica, he knew there would have to be some kind of punishment.
But Ahmed, a Flushing resident and now a senior at the school, along with numerous other students, educators and legislators, say the response to situations like his in schools across the borough and city is often needlessly harsh.
While the city’s school discipline code says students like Ahmed should first receive a peer mediation session — meaning an attempt to help the student resolve the conflict with a third-party — before potentially being suspended, Ahmed said he was immediately made to leave school.
“Before giving me any kind of peer mediation, they just suspended me for three days,” Ahmed said. “I would’ve liked the mediation. Give me detention —that’s reasonable. But they made me stay at my house and miss homework and two tests.”
The city Department of Education did not respond to requests for comment, and the school’s principal could not be reached.
More than 100 students, parents and teachers gathered at City Hall last week to protest the Department of Education’s discipline policies and urge the city to use alternatives to suspensions that they say promote better behavior — such as the mediation Ahmed suggested.
The protesters also marched to One Police Plaza to “demand that Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stop the over-policing of our schools and put an end to student arrests for school discipline matters,” according to a statement from the Dignity in Schools Campaign, the organization that organized last week’s protest. A number of students from Desis Rising Up and Moving, of which Ahmed is a member, were also involved.
According to Dignity in Schools, there were 73,000 suspensions issued in the city’s public schools during the 2008-09 school year. More than 16,000 ranged from six days to a school year, with an average length of 25 days, according to the group. Students of color, with disabilities and from low-income communities were the most impacted, with an average of more than 38,000 black students suspended that year, according to Dignity in Schools.
These figures could not be confirmed by the DOE.
Along with advocating for fewer suspensions and more positive behavior interventions, protesters last week said the DOE should spend less money on NYPD school safety officers and more on guidance counselors. There are more than 5,000 school safety officers — many of whom students say are needlessly aggressive and about 3,000 guidance counselors in city schools.
“If we had 10,000 guidance counselors to work with our students, to prepare our students for college rather than creating a police state when you walk through the door, maybe we would have more success in our schools,” said Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights), a former teacher who spoke at the protest. “We need to fund our schools; we need to find discipline measures that work.”
Montania Chakladar, an Astoria resident and senior at Information Technology High School in Long Island City, said the safety officers are “rowdy.”
“They were trained by the NYPD, and I don’t think they know how to behave or treat young adults,” she said. “There was a food fight at my school that I wasn’t involved in, but a school safety officer said I was involved, and no matter what you say, if an SSO says they saw you do it, they won’t listen to you.”
The NYPD also did not respond to a request for comment.
Over the past year, Dignity in Schools advocates have met with senior DOE administrators and testified at public forums to urge the city to focus on using alternatives to suspensions that focus on communication, such as between students who have fought each other.
While Dignity in Schools officials said they were encouraged that the DOE has recognized alternatives to suspensions, they noted there is no formal requirement that principals and other school staff throughout the city always use these approaches.
“If the discipline code was changed, what would happen is when students are having problems, if their mom yells at them and they’re having a bad day, they know they can go to school and have someone to talk to,” Chakladar said. “They can start fresh when they get to class, and they’ll behave in class. Right now there aren’t really people for us to talk to. Our guidance counselors don’t really have time for us.”
Ahmed too said a different approach to discipline could mean students faring better in school.
“It happens every day, students getting suspended for minor situations,” Ahmed said. “My friend brought a lighter into school by accident, and he got suspended. When I talked to my principal about it, he said they have to follow rules. If they treated us positively, you’d see students doing better academically.”