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The New Discipline Policy: A Recipe for Disaster?

Zero tolerance policies that have been so popular in school districts over the last 20 years are seeing diminishing returns over time

Last week, major changes to the NYC Department of Education (NYCDOE) Discipline code were announced.

These changes were implemented on the heels of reports showing there has been a sharp increase in suspensions and arrests in schools and or arrested are Black and Latino.

The recent changes to the discipline code, the document that enumerates the consequences for breaking the rules in schools, reflects the city’s desire to reduce the number of out-of-school suspensions and try to use more non-punitive intervention measures to improve student behavior.

The New York Times reported that  New York City public school students cannot be suspended for “low level” infractions while younger students in grades K-3 can only be issued a maximum of five day suspension for mid-level infractions. 

The changes have been met with mixed reviews. City officials believe that the changes will prevent students from missing school as a result of excessive suspensions for relatively minor offenses. Some parents and teachers however, worry that a more lenient approach to discipline will negatively impact the learning environment of the students who are not disruptive. 

I believe that for better or for worse, the recent changes to the discipline code are consistent with a line of educational policy and court decisions that move public schools closer to the notion of education as a fundamental right for all. But these changes, as well intentioned as they may be, could end up having the effect of preventing even greater numbers of students from receiving a quality education. 

For instance, the new discipline code calls for increased interventions by guidance counselors and social workers. Anyone who currently works in our schools can tell you that there are not nearly enough counseling professions to address the myriad of needs that students have outside of discipline.

In many schools counselors often have a caseload of 400 – 500 students.  If the city is not committed to increasing the number of guidance counselors and social workers in schools to take on what I imagine will be a dramatic increase in their workload, then it will be impossible for schools to meet the requirements of the new policy and implement guidance interventions in a timely manner. 

The unfortunate result would be classrooms where negative behaviors will not be addressed quickly enough and innocent students are held hostage in dysfunctional learning environments.

Another change requires schools to hold more parent conferences to discuss problematic behavior as an alternative to suspension. 

While this seems to be a natural alternative, this intervention is based on the assumption that all students have parents (or any adult for that matter) who are willing and able to be responsive partners in the educational process. 

More often than you would imagine, troubled students often act out as a result of the absence of a stable adult presence in their lives. The agencies that are sometimes responsible for them are often overwhelmed and are not able to give their clients the same level of attention as a parent.   

The goal of ensuring that students who oftentimes are among the most vulnerable are protected from capricious and arbitrary discipline policies is one that few people can argue with, and we know that as a strategy to improve student behavior, suspension has been a failure. 

Although there has been an increase in the number of suspensions handed out in schools, there has been an even greater increase in the number of serious incidents occurring in schools. 

This data clearly lets us know that the zero tolerance policies that have been so popular in school districts over the last 20 years are seeing diminishing returns over time. It therefore makes sense for the city to seek other viable alternatives. While we know that suspensions alone are not effective, new policy initiatives that are underfunded and unsupported are even worse. 

Simply getting rid of suspension without ramping up the intervention support structures is a recipe for disaster.

John September 03, 2012 at 10:36 PM
What a great idea! Commissioner Kelly should use the same logic and decrease crime by not arresting criminals!!

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