By Mary Frost
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Roughly a thousand kids are suspended every week in New York City schools and advocacy groups say these suspensions are unnecessarily harsh, especially for black and Latino students.
On Friday night, members of the Dignity in Schools Campaign New York (DSC-NY) held a candlelight vigil and march across the Brooklyn Bridge to protest the suspensions. About a dozen groups participated, including Advocates for Children of New York, American Friends Service Committee, Children's Defense Fund and Make the Road New York.
“I’ve been suspended, and I feel like it affected me a lot,” said Andrew Opong, an 11th-grade student at the Eagle Academy for Young Men in the Bronx. “When you come back you’ve missed out on so much knowledge.”
Dignity in Schools says the suspensions are derailing learning and increasing the dropout rate, and wants DOE to implement alternative policies that focus on resolving conflict.
“A lot of our children get ‘pushed out’ as a punitive measure, instead of positive alternatives that help them stay in school,” Shoshi Chowdhury, coordinator for the campaign, told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.
Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm testified last December that at least 45,939 students — or 4.5 percent of the city’s student population — were suspended during the 2010-2011 school year. (This number doesn’t include schools suspending less than 10 students, and DSC says the figure is closer to 70,000.)
Black students -- who make up a third of the student population -- received half of the total suspensions.
Even little children are being sent home. More than 6,000 elementary school-age students were suspended in the 2008-09 school year – almost double from 2002-03, the New York Civil Liberties Union reported. During the 2010- 2011 school year, at least 814 suspensions were issued to students in third grade or below.
“What used to be normal childhood misbehavior is now labeled criminal behavior,” Chowdhury said. “Most summonses are for disorderly conduct, anything disruptive. One student was arrested for writing on a desk. She was 12, and she was taken to the Precinct.” With the help of advocates from the NYCLU, the charges were dropped, Chowdhury said.
“Another 11-year-old was arrested for fighting over a pencil. Now the other students hide behind their desks when they see security agents,” she said.
The city says it’s working on the problem. In August, New York City School’s Chancellor Dennis Walcott said that the rules surrounding suspensions were easing. “Our goal is to make sure the schools are providing a safe environment for our students, but also we just don’t push students out of the classroom where they’re not learning as well,” he said in a statement.
DOE made changes to the School Discipline Code, highlighting the use of interventions such as parent conferences, and giving principals more flexibility.
The new 2012 School Disciplinary Code states, “Every reasonable effort should be made to correct student misbehavior through guidance interventions and other school-based resources and the least severe disciplinary responses.”
Still, students can receive suspensions at the discretion of the principal, and can be removed from school for months for behavior that does not result in serious injury.
The city classifies misbehavior from Level 1, the least harmful, to Level 5, “seriously dangerous or violent.”
Being late to school, a Level 1 infraction, may result in detention, but not removal. At Level 2, being rude or disruptive could result in removal from the classroom, but probably not full suspension.
Many Level 3 behaviors can result in suspension: wearing gang apparel, using school Internet for non-educational purposes, engaging in vandalism or graffiti or possessing stolen property, for example.
Level 4 behaviors – bullying, starting a fire, or possessing drugs, for example – would likely result in suspension, as would dangerous Level 5 behavior.
Friday’s march was part of the 3rd Annual National Week of Action on School Pushout, where marches and teach-ins in 20 cities nationwide to raise awareness about the more than three million students suspended out-of-school each year.
This story has been updated with quotes from march participants.