Change Maker: School Justice Project


Photo Credit: Dawn L. Yuster, Esq., Project Director, School Justice Project, Advocates for Children of New York

The Problem

In the 2015-2016 school year, according to the New York City Department of Education (DOE) there were a total of 37,647 suspensions.  While this is a decrease by about 16% compared to the previous year and by almost 46% compared to five years ago, Black and Hispanic students continued to be disproportionately suspended from school.  The disparities are significant and follow a national trend.  During the last school year, Black and Hispanic students in New York City were 3.61 and 1.71 times as likely to be suspended as white students, respectively.  According to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, national data for the 2013-2014 school year shows that “Black K-12 students were 3.8 times as likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions as white students.”

Additionally, while New York City Police Department (NYPD) data shows that schools have continued to become safer with record lows in school crime and fewer students arrested for school-related incidents, significant racial disparities in students arrested, issued summonses, and handcuffed in school remain.  Students as young as 16 years old receive a summons to appear in court for minor misbehavior that does not rise to the level of a crime.  Students as young as 7 years old are handcuffed in school because they are in emotional distress.

Suspensions have not been shown to change students’ negative behavior to more positive behavior. In fact, the use of exclusionary discipline – including suspensions as well as referrals to law enforcement authorities – creates the potential for significant, negative educational and long-term outcomes.  A wealth of research indicates that school suspension increases the likelihood that students will be held back a grade, not graduate, drop out of school, receive a subsequent suspension or expulsion, and become involved in the juvenile justice system, thus proliferating the school-to-prison-pipeline.

U.S. Attorney General, Eric Holder, once a proponent of zero-tolerance based discipline (automatic suspension for misbehavior), noted in a recent New York Times’ Retro Report, “There is a connection between the school system and the justice system that did not exist 30 years ago.” He spoke about how school crime rates were dropping before zero-tolerance based policies were implemented. His rhetoric on zero-tolerance has changed considerably since the 1990’s. “Routine discipline infractions should land a student in the principal’s office, not a police precinct,” he said.

Deep in the trenches of this issue is NYC-based, Advocates for Children of New York. Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) works closely with students, teachers, parents, school administrators, city agencies, and other advocates on finding solutions to student misbehavior beyond punitive and exclusionary measures. The School Justice Project of AFC works to reduce the number of suspensions, summonses, and arrests in New York City schools, while increasing the use of positive alternatives that promote social-emotional development and provide behavioral interventions and support.  The Equality Indicators got a chance to speak with Dawn Yuster, School Justice Project Director, on what AFC is doing to improve outcomes for NYC public school students’ faced with suspension and law enforcement interventions in school.

AFC advocates for restorative practices and other positive approaches when it comes to dealing with discipline issues. Can you explain a little about what restorative practices entails?

Restorative Practices is an evidence-based model that emphasizes repairing and preventing the harm that conflict causes, rather than imposing punishment.  The model focuses on restoring and building relationships.  Students are taught basic social skills to problem-solve and de-escalate conflict.  This approach provides students with meaningful opportunities to be accountable for their actions and responsible for helping to make their school a safe and nurturing place.  All people impacted by a conflict are included in the process of identifying and attempting to repair the harm and create a process that promotes reconciliation and solutions that rebuild relationships.  In contrast to suspension, which focuses on broken rules, blame, punishment, and exclusion, Restorative Practices allows school officials to consider how students will best learn why they must change their behavior, requires students to take responsibility for their behavior, helps students learn to avoid such behavior, and provides an inclusionary response that keeps students in the classroom.

AFC is a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate & Discipline. The Leadership Team’s report announced a significant decrease in rates of suspension (falling 31.7% from July to December of 2015). What are NYC public schools doing differently? What more needs to be done?

In response to advocacy led by AFC and some of our allies, in February 2015, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a package of school climate reforms that included the formation of the Mayoral Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline to reduce suspensions, summonses, and arrests in schools, while promoting safe and positive school climates.  The Leadership Team produced its first set of recommendations early in summer 2015.  The de Blasio administration issued its implementation plan in the fall.   It included increased training and support for school personnel in non-punitive school disciplinary strategies, de-escalation training for police officers, and expanded access to behavioral health treatment options in high-needs schools.

A second and final set of recommendations was released in a report by the Leadership Team in July 2016.  The recommendations addressed revisions to the school discipline code; mental health interventions for students; the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the DOE and NYPD that delineates the roles of the agencies in discipline and safety; and student reentry from suspension, juvenile detention, or incarceration to school.  When the report was released, the de Blasio administration announced in partnership with DOE Chancellor Carmen Fariña, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and the City Council, steps the City will take over the next year as part of its roadmap to promote safe schools and end overly punitive school discipline policies, including:  update the discipline code to reduce use of suspensions, increase mental health support services and restorative practices in high needs schools, and revise the MOU between the NYPD and DOE to clearly delineate the roles of school staff and the NYPD.  We hope to see the City follow through on these commitments and expand them in scale and scope.  We also hope the City will adopt and implement other recommendations in the report that the administration has yet to adopt.  For example, we hope the City will launch a pilot program providing a comprehensive mental health service continuum in 20 high-needs schools, including using hospital-based clinics and providing whole-school Collaborative Problem Solving training to support these schools.

In addition to students of color, who are some other groups that may be vulnerable to suspensions/expulsions/in-school arrests?

Other than Black students, students with disabilities are the largest group disproportionately impacted by suspensions in New York City.   In the 2015-2016 school year, students with disabilities comprised about 18.7% of the student population, but they comprised 38.6% of the total number of suspensions—up from 38.2% in the prior year.  The NYPD does not collect information about a student’s disability so there is no data on the percentage of school-related arrests for students with disabilities.  However, about 50% of youth in juvenile detention in New York City have a disability.

What is the proper role for law enforcement inside schools? What is the proper role for school administrators? How can school cultures be transformed into more positive, learning environments for all?

The Mayor’s Leadership Team on School Climate and Discipline’s report contains a recommendation directly addressing this issue.  It recommends revising the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the NYPD and the DOE to decriminalize student misbehavior by clearly delineating the roles of school administrators and the NYPD, specifying minor offenses that will not result in student arrest or receipt of a summons, and creating an arrest diversion program for lower-level crimes.  The MOU should specify that School Safety personnel should focus on responding to serious criminal matters where there is a real and immediate threat of serious physical injury to a member of the school community.  The United States Department of Justice has recommended this standard, as well.

In order to change school culture, it is critical that the City make a long-term commitment—through funding and inter-agency collaboration—to continue to move from a punitive and exclusionary approach to discipline to a preventive and restorative one, while ensuring that all children have the social-emotional supports they need and eliminating disparities by race and disability in disciplinary practices. It is our hope that the administration will create and implement a long-term strategic plan to ramp up its investment in restorative practices and mental health supports in schools.

You attended high school in NYC in the 1980’s. What is the biggest change you have seen in overall school climates from then till now?

One of the most striking changes since I attended NYC public school is the massive police presence that currently exists in our schools.  In the 1980’s, most schools had no police officers, let alone as many as five or six police officers, as there are in some schools today.  It’s one thing for police officers to be called in to a school to address an emergency, and another thing for police officers to regularly roam school hallways and intervene in normative child and adolescent misbehavior.  What began as an earnest approach to protecting children from harm has morphed into policing the same children we claim to purportedly protect.