Testimony on the Department of Education's compliance with the School Safety Act

Testimony of UFT Director of School Safety and Victim Support David Kazansky before the New York City Council Committees on Education, Juvenile Justice and Public Safety

Good afternoon, Chairman Jackson, Chairwoman Gonzalez, Chairman Vallone and members of these three distinguished committees. My name is David Kazansky, and I am the Director of School Safety and Victim Support for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of our members, I want to thank you for this opportunity to share our views about school safety and the Department of Education’s compliance with the School Safety Act.

Student suspensions, if necessary at all, should be a last resort after all other strategies have failed. After all, our students need and deserve every opportunity to learn in class, and suspensions are disruptive to their academic careers.

Data and Transparency

In November 2011, our union offered testimony before this body in support of the School Safety Act, particularly for moving the DOE toward greater transparency in our schools. The DOE’s subsequent compliance with the School Safety Act and its sharing of suspension data with the public has enabled greater oversight from the City Council; and parents, advocacy groups and the press can better hold the DOE accountable for effective and equitable school discipline.

Perhaps due to the scrutiny and oversight during the past year, recent data indicates that there has been a reduction in total suspensions compared to last year, 69,643 down from 73,441. But while there are some minor downward fluctuations, the overall picture has not changed. In fact, while students with IEPs represent just 12% of total enrollment, they represent over 32% of students suspended. Likewise, black and Latino students — 31% and 40% of student enrollment respectively — represent over 51% and almost 37% respectively of student suspensions. It’s also worth noting that the numbers indicate almost 8,500 suspensions for insubordination and over 3,300 for horseplay.

An even stronger indication of the state of safety in our schools is revealed through the data collected in the Safety and Respect section of the city’s Schools Progress Reports. The UFT has spent time reviewing what parents, teachers and students have said over the past three years, and it’s deeply disturbing that all three groups have reported no improvement in safety in our schools. In fact, teachers and students continually rate safety as the most troublesome aspect of our school climate. Of particular concern is the degree to which students feel they have been harassed or have conflicts over issues such race, color, creed, ethnicity, national origin, citizenship/immigration status, religion, gender, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation or disability.

These feelings on safety and school climate raise a number of questions. First and foremost, how can we address the issues of safety when we don’t even see the same things? Should the DOE be using these reports to determine how to bridge this gap? Why have the suspensions decreased, yet the safety and health numbers do not show that students or teachers see that as having a real effect on their schools?

One of the biggest obstacles is communication and collaboration. All of the members of the school community need to work together — from the school leadership to teachers, school safety officers and counselors, to the networks to parents, the community and the DOE.

Another obstacle is the lack of resources, training and support. The DOE has given limited support to restorative approaches that give students ownership of their behavior and make them responsible for doing something to make it right. Last year, the DOE only supported training in restorative approaches in 10 schools. With more than 1,700 schools, 10 schools is a drop in the bucket.

The DOE Discipline Code

The DOE recently reduced categories deemed suspension-worthy in the 2012-2013 school year Discipline Code. We concur that students should not be suspended for low-level offenses when better options exist. What’s more, if the school can no longer suspend in a given category, it’s logical to deduce that the number of overall suspensions would decrease.

But simply encouraging school leaders to suspend fewer students is not in and of itself a productive solution. Improving discipline is more than lowering suspensions — the underlying discipline problems need to be addressed as well.

Plus, changing the Discipline Code without related program support — without, for example, supplying additional mental health professionals like guidance counselors, social workers or school psychologists — doesn’t address school safety. Unfortunately, where key counseling professionals are present in the schools, their caseloads are bursting and the needs of students are not met.

Alternative Solutions and Techniques

Schools need more alternatives to suspending students.

Teachers need proper training. When teachers are not given ongoing professional development in how to deal with low-level discipline problems in their classrooms, small problems can escalate and become unmanageable.

Without behavior modification, counselors or proven problem-solving approaches in place, suspensions are no longer the last resort but become the only response.

Without thoughtful crisis intervention policies and procedures in place for dealing with our most challenging students, controllable situations can, unfortunately, result in student arrests or trips to the emergency room.

These issues persist despite the progress made and all of the data collected because, as the saying goes, “When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” The UFT agrees with many experts and advocates who believe that students would be better served by less emphasis on discipline and a greater emphasis on prevention and intervention. Moving forward, it is critical that the city and the DOE:

  • Train schools to use the Discipline Code effectively and to eliminate the over-reliance on suspensions as a primary approach to safety;
  • Significantly increase resources and supports for prevention and intervention programs as well as efforts to help children change behaviors and to help teachers and staffs learn to de-escalate explosive situations before they occur; and
  • Build capacity for greater communication and collaboration with school safety committees, students, staff, and parents and the community.

One successful program that the UFT has supported is the Therapeutic Crisis Intervention System (TCIS) as delivered by trained faculty from Cornell University’s Bronfenbrenner Center for Translational Research. We especially appreciate District 75’s Gary Hecht, who introduced us to TCIS, and Dana Ashley, who heads their Strategies, Techniques and Options Prior to Placement (STOPP) initiative and has helped the UFT over the last two years work with dozens of schools in the core principles. The TCIS curriculum was initially developed to help caregivers working with at-risk youth in residential settings. It has been adapted and increasingly embraced by schools seeking alternatives to harsh discipline in less restrictive settings. TCIS principles address the behaviors and responses of both the students and the educators and staff.

We’re seeing the results of this program firsthand at PS/MS 20, a pre-K to 8th-grade school in the Bronx. One UFT member, Mitch Kalges-Bombich, after learning the TCIS principles and becoming a certified trainer for her school, has put the program to work. She’s thrilled with the changes that an intervention and behavior modification approach has brought to student and staff interactions. “The training helps educators and staff baseline behavior and demeanor for their students and helps them recognize escalating agitation or detect when something is ‘off,’ even when the source is something outside of the classroom,” Mitch explained.

In the TCIS program, when incidents do occur and after the student is calmed, a life-based interview is conducted where there’s time for the student to explore what happened, identify what the negative behavior is, and tie the action to the behavior. The adults engage in role play with students to help them understand their options for alternative positive behavior and help them find the words to articulate their needs. Students are returned to class understanding that self-regulation is the key.

Additionally, we have long felt that city schools need resources and support for active peer-mediation, gang-prevention and conflict-resolution programs. In fact, these programs and services once had a significant presence in our schools and were helping to make them safe from harassment and bullying.

I also want to note that starting this coming September, the UFT will begin a new initiative entitled “Safety in Numbers.” This initiative will educate our members in school on the importance of officially reporting all incidents of a disciplinary nature that occur in the schools and encourage them to do so. I believe wholeheartedly that schools that accurately report and address disciplinary issues are more willing and able to solve these issues. We will be helping our schools do just that.

In cases where suspensions are needed, the DOE created Alternative Learning Centers so that students can continue their education in another setting while serving their suspensions. It’s an important alternative to simply pushing kids out of school. The ALCs are run by the DOE’s Office of Safety and Youth Development and its CEO Elayna Konstan; they’re doing very good work with our students and ALCs should be considered an example of ‘best practices.’ The UFT supports this program so strongly that one of its sites is located in our downtown headquarters.

Communicate, Collaborate, Inform

Beyond these recommendations, we also believe safety committees should be active and strong in each and every school. Currently, these committees have varying degrees of influence relative to the disciplinary practices or sharing lessons learned. The committee at a minimum should look at the data for what has happened and collaborate on how to modify policies and procedures and measure progress. Not all schools have a comprehensive student removal policy, nor do all schools have in-house SAVE rooms that keep students with more severe discipline problems in their schools. Specifically, the committee is entitled to receive the summary of types of infractions and the summary of where infractions took place.

The UFT has found that principals and school leaders who reveal the data and collaborate with their safety committees operate successful, safe schools, and those who withhold the data generally lack in safety planning and are less successful.

The more voices talking about safety in our school communities, the better it will be for students. That is why as part of the Safety in Numbers initiative, we will be using the data from the School Progress Reports to find schools with the widest gap between teacher and student perceptions of school culture. The UFT will select a pilot cohort of these schools that are in greatest need of support and work with them to find out how to bridge that gap and tackle the issue so that all stakeholders in the school community work together to create a safe, secure school.

The Safety in Numbers initiative will also be developing training modules for school staff, students and parents so that they better understand the Discipline Code and learn some of the de-escalation and crisis intervention techniques that will allow them to be a positive instrument of change in their school community.

Closing Thoughts

We hope the DOE will listen to the recommendations that all stakeholders have to offer to reduce student suspensions and promote an environment where children and the entire school community can grow and develop.

Ultimately, the DOE can reduce the number of student suspensions; that’s not the hard part. But without real culture change in our schools and programs and without a real commitment to peer intervention and de-escalation techniques, we are just playing games with numbers.

Thank you.

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