code shift

New York City moves to significantly reduce K-2 suspensions, but isn’t eliminating them

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Advocates protest school suspension policy in August 2016.

New York City is moving forward with a plan to dramatically reduce suspensions for its youngest students, according to a revised draft of the city’s discipline code released Friday, and will further limit the use of suspensions for older students.

The changes, which started coming into focus last summer and could take effect in several weeks, will all but eliminate suspensions in grades K-2, except in cases “when a student repeatedly displays behavior that is violent or could cause serious harm, or a student violates the Gun-Free Schools Act,” according to city officials.

Still, the new policy is not the absolute “end to suspensions” for the city’s youngest students the city promised in July.

Though suspensions in that age group have fallen in recent years — down to 801 last school year from nearly 1,500 the year before — the new policy is likely to have a dramatic impact. Officials said that if the proposed discipline code had been in place last year, just 25 students in grades K-2 would have been suspended.

“These changes are promising,” wrote Dawn Yuster, the social justice project director at Advocates for Children. “Students, regardless of their age, should not be forced to miss weeks, months, or a year of valuable instruction time.”

Still, several advocates said the changes were not sweeping enough, and don’t address serious disparities in suspension rates for students with disabilities and those of color.

“The incremental change is important, but it’s been incremental change for a decade,” Johanna Miller, advocacy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview. “We’re working with a broken system if we’re talking about telling a six-year-old it’s no longer appropriate to come to school.”

Most of the suspensions handed out to those students come from a small number of schools, and the most common reason for suspending students in that age group is for a category known as “altercation and/or physically aggressive behavior” that was once referred to as “horseplay,” a Chalkbeat analysis found.

The city is “committed to ending suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email. “The proposed changes to the discipline code are significant steps toward meeting this goal.”

The changes would also affect older students: Suspensions would be eliminated as punishments for several infractions, and maximum penalties will be reduced for others.

In grades six-12, for instance, the maximum punishment would be reduced for 14 out of the 62 infractions listed in the discipline code for that age group. In grade three, the maximum punishment would be reduced for 14 infractions, and for grades four and five, the punishments would be reduced for eight infractions.

Kesi Foster, a coordinator at the Urban Youth Collaborative, an advocacy group that works with students on justice issues, said the proposed changes are a step in the right direction, but don’t address systemic problems.

“It’s hard for us to look at reductions in overall suspensions and feel as if we’re getting to the root of the problem, when the disparities remain sky-high.” He pointed to statistics that show black students, who represent 27 percent of the city’s students, account for half of all suspensions.

Foster added that suspensions for an offense called “insubordination” had not been eliminated, a reform advocates say could eliminate a subjective infraction often targeted at students of color (though principals must get approval before suspending a student for it).

The NYCLU’s Miller also noted that the discipline code has not been updated to provide clear guidance on how police officers should interact with students, including when handcuffs should be used.

The education department’s Holness pointed to overall decreases in crime, arrests and summonses and noted, “We are dedicated to addressing the disparities in school discipline.” The city is in discussions to update the agreement that governs how police interact with students, she added.

The United Federation of Teachers, which was critical of the discipline code changes announced over the summer, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The union previously argued that the city has not adequately trained teachers in alternative discipline practices, a concern that has bubbled up in some schools.

Daphna Gutman, principal at P.S. 142 in Manhattan, cheered the suspension policy in an interview. “From my experience and my school, [suspensions are] not a useful tool. We think it sends the messages that you’re not welcome in the community. It’s essentially banishment.”

A hearing on the discipline code changes is scheduled for January 25 at Manhattan’s M.S. 131 and the Department of Education will accept public comment through January 30.

March for Our Lives

Memphis students say Saturday protest is not just about school shootings. It’s about all gun violence.

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
A student at Columbine High School holds a sign during a protest of gun violence, on March 14, 2018 in Littleton, Colorado.

Students marching Saturday in Memphis against gun violence say they are not only protesting the shootings that killed 17 people last month at a Florida high school. They also are speaking out against shootings that happen daily in their own city.

Seventeen-year-old John Chatman says he fears school shootings, but he especially fears the common gun violence in his neighborhood of South Memphis. He has lost close friends to shootings.

“It can happen anywhere, anytime,” Chatman said. “I think [this march] is a great stand. We should protest against school shootings. But we have to talk about what kids like me are seeing in Memphis on the daily.”

Memphis had 200 homicides in 2017, down from 228 the previous year, the deadliest year recorded in the city in two decades.

Chatman is one of hundreds of Memphians expected to participate in this weekend’s March for Our Lives event as part of a nationwide protest sparked by the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. The largest march will be in Washington, D.C., where up to a half million protesters are expected, but smaller demonstrations are planned in cities and towns across the nation. In Tennessee, other marches are slated for Jackson, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, Clarksville, Cookeville, and Johnson City.

The Memphis march will start at 10 a.m. at Claiborne Temple, and Savanah Thompson will be there. One of more than a dozen student organizers, she worries that news about people getting shot has become commonplace.

“Being in Memphis, you get used to hearing about gun violence,” said Thompson, a freshman at White Station High School. “This affects the youth in our city. … We never want a school shooting to happen in Memphis or anywhere ever again.”

Alyssa Kieren, a student leader at Collierville High School, hopes the march fosters a sense of unity.

“We’re trying to stress that this isn’t a partisan issue,” Kieren said. “We have to acknowledge there is a problem and we have to come up with solutions. … The thing we’re upset about is that children are dying in our schools, and they’re dying in our city.”


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education.