City Mulls Changes to School Discipline Policy After Meeting With Parents

By Patrick Wall on August 29, 2012 8:46am 

BRONX — City officials have agreed to consider far-reaching changes to school discipline policies, including how school safety agents are trained and what offenses students can be ticketed for, following a series of meetings between school and police officials as well as parents and students.

The summer meetings were prompted by protests earlier in the year when NYPD data showed that in late 2011 police officers arrested an average of five students per day, the vast majority of whom were black or Latino. The police averaged four student arrests and seven summonses per day for the full school year, according to a report this month.

The data also revealed that police issued nearly half of all in-school tickets in The Bronx.

Though the police have provided school security since 1998, advocates say it is unusual for them to participate in public meetings with education officials.

“In New York City, getting those two parties in the same room together was really a coup,” said Jamie Koppel, senior program associate for Children’s Defense Fund-New York, one of several advocate groups involved in the ongoing meetings.

Other participants called the sessions, which involved top officials from the DOE’s Office of School and Youth Development and the NYPD’s School Safety Division, “groundbreaking” and “incredible.”

Participants said police have expressed openness to involving students and possibly parents in part of the school safety agent training and to reevaluating the definition of “disorderly conduct,” which critics say police use to penalize students for non-criminal misbehavior. And the DOE said it is developing a pilot program based on ideas raised in the meetings.

Following the release of the school arrest and summons data in February, a South Bronx group called the New Settlement Parent Action Committee (PAC) organized a press conference and later a march to protest what they call the “school-to-prison pipeline.” In June, they held a public hearing on school safety attended by roughly 100 people, including police and education officials.

Smaller meetings followed in July and August, where officials and members of the public hashed out the specific reforms that the city is now considering.

The reforms stem from a number of concerns students and parents raised in June. These included overly aggressive school safety agents, lengthy suspensions, too few guidance counselors and the corrosive effect of school policing on morale.

Parent Esperanza Vazquez said her fifth-grade son was terrified when police arrested a classmate who got involved in a fight over a pencil.

“When the police entered the room, he thought that they were all going to be arrested, and so he hid under his chair,” she said, according to an account of the hearing by New Settlement PAC organizer Dinu Ahmed. “All of the kids were traumatized.”

Lynn Sanchez, who has been involved in the meetings, said Monday that she transferred her daughter out of a low-performing Bronx middle school partly because of its metal detectors and safety agents who acted “pretty rough and mean to the kids.”

“She felt like she was walking into a correctional facility,” Sanchez, 31, said of her daughter.

During the July and August meetings, the group narrowed its focus to a few specific reforms centered on school safety agents, the “disorderly conduct” definition, and so-called positive discipline, which aims for behavior change rather than punishment.

School safety agents currently undergo a 14-week police academy training that includes courses in law, police science and physical training, after which they are deputized as special patrolmen, according to the NYPD website. The Education Department collaborates on some of the instruction.

Critics say the training prepares agents to provide security and enforce rules, but not to deescalate conflicts among young people.

At the meetings, some suggested that students run half or full-day trainings for agents and that parents, students and the agents engage in regular, organized conversations about school safety. Police officials welcomed the dialogue suggestion and were willing to “further discuss” the training idea, according to meeting participants.

NYPD officials also promised to bring the current definition of “disorderly conduct” to the next meeting, where they may consider limiting it, participants said.

DOE officials agreed to develop positive discipline pilot programs in at least two Bronx schools, which could each receive up to $25,000 to implement approaches such as peer mediation, participants said.

The NYPD did not respond to questions about school safety agent training or the meetings.

Marge Feinberg, a DOE spokeswoman, acknowledged that a pilot program is being developed “as a result of these meetings,” but said, “it is premature to provide details.”

Feinberg added that the department offers professional development in positive discipline, it runs an anti-bullying program called Respect for All, and it banned long-term suspensions for low-level infractions in this year’s updated discipline code.

“We believe a more progressive discipline is warranted,” Feinberg said in an email, “with strong student counseling and youth development support.”

The group is scheduled to meet again on September 12.

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