Sharp Rise in Suspensions at City’s Schools Is Cited
By FERNANDA SANTOS
January 27, 2011
The number of New York City student suspensions more than doubled in the six years after Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg took control of public schools and as the city moved toward a zero-tolerance approach toward misbehavior, according to a report released on Thursday.
The report, compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union and based on 10 years of previously undisclosed suspension statistics, echoed a nationwide trend toward mandatory suspensions for an increasing variety of infractions. In the city, at least, the suspensions have also kept students away from the classroom for longer periods.
The analysis found that suspensions were more prevalent among students in 5th through 10th grades and more frequently doled out in the spring, when most assessment tests are scheduled. The suspensions can be as short as one day and as long as one year, for reasons as diverse as starting a fire, engaging in fights, gambling and cursing.
Of roughly 74,000 suspensions given out in the 2008-9 school year, about 11,000 lasted one to five days, while 5,500 ran anywhere from 30 days to one year, the analysis shows. There were roughly 32,000 suspensions in 2002, and the vast majority of them lasted five days or less.
Black students, who make up 30 percent of the schools’ enrollment, accounted for more than half of all suspensions every year from 1999-2000 to 2008-9, the period covered by the report. Special-education students, who make up 16.2 percent of the enrollment, served about one-third of all suspensions. There are about 1.1 million students in city schools, and the suspension rate, roughly 1 for every 14 students, is similar to that found in nationwide studies.
Donna Lieberman, executive director for the New York Civil Liberties Union, said suspensions could have serious consequences to a student’s education. A national study found that students who had been suspended three times or more in their sophomore year of high school were five times as likely to drop out or graduate late. In New York City, one in five students suspended in a single year is suspended at least twice in one year, the report showed.
“The growing reliance on suspensions in New York City schools all too often denies children, often the most vulnerable and in need of support, their right to an education,” Ms. Lieberman said.
Last year, the Education Department revised its disciplinary code to decrease the number of offenses that warrant mandatory suspension, known as zero-tolerance infractions, to 21 from 29, as it had been since 2007.
There were only seven zero-tolerance offenses listed in the code in 1998.
Changes have also been made over time to the definition and scope of some of the infractions. Natalie Ravitz, an Education Department spokeswoman, said the changes were to conform with the times and to give principals more latitude. The department is looking to use more social and emotional mediation to address behavioral issues among special-education students, she said.
Altercations that used to call for automatic suspension no longer do; principals can choose to address offenses by calling a meeting with the student’s parents or suggesting another punishment before removing a student from school, Ms. Ravitz said.
“Preserving a safe and orderly environment in our schools is critical to our students’ academic success,” she said, adding that “race is not a factor in suspension decisions.”
The report recommends ending the zero-tolerance policy and improving access to guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists. It also asks the Education Department to make its data more accessible; Ms. Lieberman said it took her organization two years to get the statistics on suspensions through a Freedom of Information Law request.