Testimony of Vice President for Middle Schools Richard Mantell before the New York City Department of Education
Good evening. My name is Richard Mantell and I am a vice president of the United Federation of Teachers. On behalf of our president, Michael Mulgrew, and our 200,000 members, I thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.
Our members have devoted their lives to helping children learn and grow. Every member of the UFT family — from teachers and paraprofessionals to guidance counselors, psychologists and social workers — spends his or her days caring for students.
We strongly believe school safety is a fundamental right for every student and staff member. We also wholly support creating a positive school environment where student suspensions are a last resort.
As educators, we understand better than anyone that suspensions are not a long-term solution to addressing challenging behavior in school. We have seen the research on the effects of exclusion from education, and we want to be part of the solution, not the problem. Handling students with discipline issues requires a comprehensive schoolwide solution.
Banning suspensions doesn’t eliminate the problem; rather, an ill-conceived ban, combined with a lack of oversight of the current system and no real plan to move forward, will perpetuate an environment of chaos and instability that can undermine the success of the classroom teacher and the achievement of every student in his or her class. Discipline policies should not be changed without examining the underlying causes of the problems and without comprehensive implementation plans that include real resources.
Our recommendation: Let's do the work and make the problem disappear the right way. We'll gladly roll up our sleeves but we need a willing partner, one that acknowledges both the importance of the mission and the challenges that lie ahead.
The Need for Tools and Professional Supports
We work with students in crisis every day. The challenges are many and varied: an elementary student who has just spent her first night in a city homeless shelter; a student whose parent has just been incarcerated; a child whose family has been shattered by domestic violence; a child with undiagnosed mental health needs. When faced with life-changing situations like these, most young students have not yet learned how to cope or how to manage their emotions. They cry. They lash out. And sometimes worse.
In these times of crisis, students need our help and the school staff needs the skills and resources to provide it.
Unfortunately, many of our schools cannot provide that help and support, and that’s why we are deeply troubled by some of the proposed changes to the student discipline code. We object, for example, to the elimination of K-2 suspensions until every school has been provided with the professional development and resources needed to create a positive school environment; to de-escalate children in crisis; and to provide a menu of options for children with mental health problems.
Elementary children grappling with adult problems or untreated mental health issues can and do erupt in the classroom. The result has been cases in which students have choked and bitten classmates, attacked others violently enough to require their hospitalization, thrown desks or chairs or computers.
When incidents like these happen – and they do happen even with our youngest students, as our health and safety teams in each borough can attest – every school is supposed to have a suite of tools at its disposal under the current discipline code: a multi-tiered system of positive behavior supports; graduated guidance interventions; a schoolwide crisis plan; and a pupil personnel or behavior intervention team (PPT) tasked with implementing intervention strategies and supports for the students.
What’s more, if a student has an identified disability, schools are supposed to have the tools to provide targeted interventions and coordinated responses through functional behavioral assessments, behavioral plans, IEPs and 504 plans.
Education law also states that students who have been removed from the classroom due to violent or extremely disruptive behavior must be sent to a location within the school where they will be provided with continued educational services including classwork and homework — a SAVE room.
The reality, however, is that many of our schools do not have even one of the above-mentioned systems in place. Most do not have a PPT team trained to deal with behavior issues or a systemic approach to support students. Teachers and administrators in some schools don’t have on-site staff they can turn to for help. Many elementary schools don’t have a guidance counselor while others share these crucial professionals with other schools. Many don’t even have a SAVE room where a student in crisis can be sent to cool down.
For children who do not have identified disabilities but continuously struggle with behavioral issues, there is no citywide system in place to consistently provide the guidance interventions suggested in the existing discipline code. Many schools attempt to implement positive behavior systems but have never had universal training or a behavior coach visit the school.
It’s also worth noting that there are a magnitude of laws, regulations, rules, policies and procedures already on the books, but they are either ineffective or are not being followed. For example, a candidate in a program leading to teaching certification is only required to complete two hours of course work or training in school violence prevention and intervention. How does this prepare the candidate for the realities of the classroom? It is no wonder that school personnel and principals lack the ability to assess behavior when all that is required is a two-hour course early in their careers.
All of these shortcomings leave teachers and administrators operating in “crisis mode” and doing the best they can to manage behavior and emotional issues as they arise. The proposed changes to the discipline code do not address the lack of resources or the underlying problems that drive suspensions.
Until resources and personnel are in place to eliminate the need for suspensions, there will not be real and lasting change.
We also feel the proposed changes to the discipline code leave too many questions unanswered. For example, according to the proposal, only 50 high-needs schools will receive increased mental health support services. An additional 20 schools also are expected to have mandatory re-engagement restorative circles for students returning from superintendent suspensions. How many of those are elementary schools that will be struggling with the new mandate to eliminate certain suspensions?
We have more than 800 elementary schools and almost 500,000 students in those buildings. The proposed resources seem to be distributed through a variety of pilot programs. They are not systemic nor do they reach every school. Yet the proposed changes are across the board. We are concerned about this obvious disconnect.
During the 2015-16 school year, the DOE has reported that approximately 800 K-2 students were suspended, or an average of one per school. Each, appropriately, required a review and sign-off by the DOE. We believe this system should continue. How will the schools and classroom teachers accommodate these students with little or no infrastructure in place? We all agree that a 6-year-old should not be excluded from school, but what will be in place to support the student and the classroom teacher when that 6-year-old causes such a problem that he or she cannot immediately be returned to the classroom?
From classroom experience, we believe a teacher removal should trigger an effective behavior support process, involving a functioning and resourced behavior team. Your plans would have a higher chance of success if every elementary school had a dedicated guidance counselor and regular access to a behavior coach.
Prevention should be the first item on every school’s agenda. Learning how to identify a student’s triggers and use a team process to develop a support plan takes support, leadership, training and time. The success of programs such as the Positive Learning Collaborative, an initiative developed by the DOE and the UFT, has proven that with comprehensive and consistent support for everyone in a school building, suspensions can be reduced dramatically and schools can become positive, engaging learning environments for all students.
The PLC’s holistic approach helps adults to work with students in order to create a positive, supportive climate that focuses on reflective and restorative practices while developing the systems needed for sustainability. We begin by training every adult in the building in Cornell’s four-day certification course, Therapeutic Crisis Intervention in Schools. We then focus on the development of a multi-tiered Behavior Support team that addresses everything from the teaching of expectations to using data to assess and address individual student behavior before the child is in crisis. Our behavior specialists have spent years in our schools learning and practicing this discipline.
When a child does act out and a suspension occurs, the team works through a post-crisis response process that analyzes what went wrong and what could have been done differently. Learning and implementing these systems takes much more than occasional support from a mental health consultant and a few hours of training.
The cumulative effect of this proposal would negatively impact a school’s ability to provide a safe environment for educators and students. Eliminating the ability of a school to intervene using suspensions, without understanding what drives the suspensions or providing educators with the resources and strategies to address problems before they escalate, is unrealistic and shortsighted.