Chalkbeat is doing a great job of tracking responses to the city’s recently announced changes to the discipline code (which I wrote about here and here). Today they published an account of responses from students and teachers’ union officials who showed up at an education department hearing.
Before I start, let me point out that the article identifies them as “proposed” changes, and I’m not really sure what this means. I’m also still not clear on whether the new changes are drawing a distinction between in-school and out-of-school suspensions.
The students, many of whom were part of the Urban Youth Collaborative or other youth advocacy groups, filed into long auditorium rows, wearing matching t-shirts with slogans like “Our Bronx. Our Lives. Our Solutions.” They brought posters with messages such as “Stop cuffing us,” and took turns sharing personal stories during a boisterous public comment period.
“Our dreams and our goals…do not stop in third grade,” said one student at the hearing, referring to the fact that the proposed suspension ban ends after second grade.
I agree. At the same time, I don’t fault the department for starting “small” and re-evaluating before going to K-12. A decision to ban suspensions K-12 all at once would be extremely disruptive and might end up undermining the larger effort to move toward restorative practices altogether. That being said, if the K-2 ban is successful, there should be pressure on the department to expand it.
At the top of students’ wish list of reforms is banning suspensions for ambiguous infractions, such as defying authority. While the city already made it more difficult to hand out these suspensions by requiring written approval to do so, some student advocates want the penalty removed altogether.
They say the policy leaves wiggle room that is disproportionately used to penalize black and Hispanic students for minor offenses.
This is a really tough one, because the same “wiggle room” that can be disproportionately used to penalize some can also be used on behalf of troubled students who are hurt by ironclad, set-in-stone policies. That sort of discretion makes some people uncomfortable because it seems to vest too much power in administrators. I understand that critique; but how sad it is that things have gotten to the point where we now have to idiot-proof (or racist-proof?) our school discipline guidelines?
I support the ban on suspensions, but I wouldn’t advocate for also removing exemptions. I can’t push for policies that restrict an educator’s ability to use their judgment to handle unique situations; legislation is important, but ultimately I’m skeptical whether issues of racial bias can be “legislated” away. These issues need to be tackled head-on by disaggregating the data to find out where black and Hispanic students are being disproportionately penalized and providing training and support with restorative practices.
Other speakers voiced the opposite concern — that the city’s suspension ban went too far.
“Banning suspensions doesn’t eliminate the problem. Rather, an ill-conceived ban, combined with a lack of oversight of the current system and no real plan to move forward, will perpetuate an environment of chaos and instability that can undermine the success of the classroom teacher and the achievement of every student in his or her class,” said Richard Mantell, vice president of the United Federation of Teachers, echoing concerns raised by UFT President Michael Mulgrew.
Mantell is right that banning suspensions doesn’t eliminate the problem (I’ve written about this here); but this is a losing issue for the union. A move toward restorative practices is happening across the country and the union needs to decide if it wants to be a partner or an obstruction. The union has every right to demand a “real plan to move forward” that goes beyond simply banning suspensions, but this is also an opportunity to be a co-author of a plan that works for both teachers and central administration.