Teachers need the power to suspend: Chancellor Carmen Fariña's school discipline reforms go too far

[This op-ed originally appeared in the Daily News on Aug. 8, 2016.]

In a perfect world, no child under the age of 8 would ever be suspended. Every student having a discipline crisis would have the proper interventions. Every classroom would be a positive learning environment.

Unfortunately, children in crisis who are disrupting classrooms are not going to be helped by the latest plan by the city’s Department of Education to ban suspensions outright in grades K-2, and neither will the thousands of other children who will lose instruction as a result of those disruptions.

The administration has already moved in this direction — limiting the infractions for which suspensions are allowed and requiring additional approval every time the tool is employed. As a result, last year saw a sharp drop in suspensions. Many teachers complained, though, that part of the decline was fueled by school administrators’ fears they would face repercussions if they continued to remove disruptive children from classrooms.

Now the DOE is going still further, formally prohibiting them in grades K-2, without a clear citywide plan to address the needs of young students with behavioral problems.

We can do better.

The system cannot eliminate suspensions when it has put nothing in place to deal with the underlying problem. What happens to the young child whose actions prohibit his or her return to the classroom?

We strongly believe that if the Department of Education properly managed existing programs, the number of suspensions for students under the age of 8 would be greatly diminished. Better management would also result in more schools developing a positive culture of discipline and respect.

Too often, Tweed adopts policies without understanding how they will play out in schools and then ignores its responsibility for turning policy into reality. Past promises for training and support have not arrived at many schools.

There are things the DOE could do right now to help improve discipline and further reduce suspensions in classrooms.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña and her staff should make sure schools have Pupil Personnel Teams to address the needs of students having behavior problems; such teams are still not functioning in many schools.

They should ensure the provisions of the state Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) legislation are being followed; the law requires schools to have a SAVE room and a full-time person in the room trained in crisis intervention — but many schools have neither.

They should increase staff training in how to de-escalate student crises. And they should provide clinical interventions for children with severe emotional or mental health needs. The DOE can and should take these steps without banning suspensions outright.

The approach is working in schools across the city. One of the examples I am most familiar with is a joint effort between the DOE and the UFT known as the Positive Learning Collaborative, where everyone in the school building is trained in techniques to identify and resolve behavior issues before they escalate.

Teachers and staff in schools like this have told me that they are better equipped to help children who are misbehaving. We have seen a reduction of suspensions and discipline incidents in these schools.

A sign that these changes are real are the anonymous staff surveys that show adults in the building see improvements, from fewer classroom disruptions to intangibles like all the staff in a building being on the same page in how to handle discipline.

The “zero tolerance” policies of the previous administration clearly did not work. They never led to a nurturing school culture or even-handed discipline. At the same time, a 180-degree pivot banning suspensions makes no sense.

Schools need the necessary supports and interventions to actually help teachers create the kind of classrooms where every child can learn.

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