Suspensions should be last resort, not first

The Department of Education held a hearing on June 5 at Stuyvesant HS to consider proposed changes to the student Discipline Code that are meant to reduce the number of offenses for which students could be suspended. But some critics say the code — even with the changes — is still too aggressive and does not adequately address racial disparities in suspensions.

City Council members, parent and student advocates and the city Department of Education will hammer out their differences in the coming months. But in the interim, schools should act to ensure a coherent process for addressing disruptive, inappropriate or violent student behavior early on and for making the right calls on student suspensions in serious cases.

One sensible approach would be to require that schools document even minor student offenses that do not merit suspension and keep a record of them in order to intervene and address small problems before they become big ones. Schools could then handle offenses with a ladder of appropriate disciplinary measures or interventions that would escalate accordingly with the seriousness of the violation, especially in cases involving repeat offenders.

As most educators know, many schools often decline to document minor student offenses until a student goes too far and commits a major infraction that results in a suspension. But if schools intervene early on, sometimes behavioral problems can be nipped in the bud before they escalate and lead to suspension.

The union’s community school model initiative currently underway would be ideal for implementing this approach because schools would offer on-site many of the social program supports — including mental health professionals — and other resources that would be useful in helping offending students deal with the problems prompting their bad behavior.

Schools must be trained to better manage safety issues and put greater emphasis on prevention and intervention. Educators should not worry about administration concerns that such vigilance in reporting incidents might make schools seem unsafe to parents or the public. It is more important to document all incidents of violent or inappropriate behavior so that schools can get the attention and supports they need to address the problems in order to keep schools safe. After all, suspension should be the last resort for schools, not the first.

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