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New York City Will End Suspensions for Students in K-2

The New York City school district, the country's largest school system, will end suspensions for students in kindergarten through second grade and employ alternative, "age-appropriate" discipline methods, the city announced Thursday.

In doing so, the New York City will join some other big-city districts, including Minneapolis, Minn., that have ended suspensions for their youngest students.

The new suspension policy is part of what the city calls its "roadmap to promote safe schools and end overly punitive school discipline policies." It will be accompanied by an additional $47 million in annual funding to support mental health and school climate initiatives, according to the city.

The city also says it will work with the police department on policies for removing or adding scanners in schools and improving data reporting about arrests, summons issued, and handcuffing in schools.

"Students feel safest when lines of responsibility and rules are crystal clear," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in announcing the policy shift.  "Today's reforms ensure that school environments are safe and structured. The reforms also empower educators and families with more data and greater clarity on school safety policy."

The announcement made for some strange bedfellows. The United Federation of Teachers, a de Blasio ally, pushed back against the changes saying they could lead to disruptive classrooms. And the pro-charter group, Families for Excellent Schools, a frequent de Blasio critic, said that removing the decision on whether to suspend a student from school leaders was "bad, reactive policy-making" and that the administration had "codified misguided school climate policy."

In a letter to Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña, Michael Mulgrew, the teachers' union president, wrote:

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

The "Zero Tolerance" policies of the previous administration clearly backfired—they never led to a nurturing school culture or even-handed discipline. At the same time, we do not believe a 180-degree pivot banning suspensions makes sense unless schools have the necessary supports and interventions in place."

According to Mulgrew, many teachers and schools do not comply with current school climate regulations because the department of education had not provided training, support, or money to accomplish those goals.  And he was skeptical that the promised support for the newly-announced programs will materialize.

Suspensions for children under eight will decrease if the department did a better job of managing the programs that it already had in place, he said.

"It is easy to ban suspensions," Mulgrew wrote. "It is much harder to do the real work so suspensions are no longer necessary."

The city touted new data showing that suspensions had dropped 32 percent in the first half of the 2015-16 school year when compared with the same period the previous school year.

But Mulgrew said in his letter that he was not sure whether the drop in suspensions was the result of district policies or administrators' fear that they would face retribution for suspending students.

The city's new policy will require schools to document positive supports and intervention that principals provide to students before suspending them. The city will also offer more mental health supports in high-need schools.

Earlier this year, Families for Excellent Schools published a report that showed an increase in violent incidents in the city's schools. Those numbers, which drew from state Department of Education data, were higher than what the city reported. (The group was also behind a lawsuit against the city alleging that school violence had created an unsafe learning environment for students.)

The group published crime numbers again this week in light of the city's new climate initiatives and data from the city showing that school crime had decreased.  In an analysis of the city's numbers, the New York Civil Liberties Union said it appeared that "nearly all police encounters were with students of color."

Jeremiah Kittredge, the executive director of Families for Excellent Schools, said the city's new climate initiatives were an acknowledgement by the city that it had a school violence problem.

"Unfortunately, today's announcement is full of the misleading rhetoric that families have come to expect from the de Blasio administration," Kittredge said.

"Chancellor Fariña and [Police] Commissioner Bratton may paint a rosy picture of decreased crime in schools, but the facts still remain—weapons recoveries are up 26%, violent incidents are up 23% and thousands of students lack relief from bullying, harassment and abuse," he said, citing the group's research. 

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