As the education of our children -- our nation's future -- and the school-justice connection has increasingly captured public attention, the sunshine of increased graduation rates has brought into sharp focus the shadow of the so-called school-to-prison pipeline -- the thousands of students who are suspended, arrested, put at greater risk for dropping out, court involvement and incarceration. They are the subject of this Report.
In school year 2011-2012 (SY2012), the number of suspensions in New York City public schools was 40 percent greater than during SY2006 (69,643 vs. 49,588, respectively), despite a five percent decrease in suspensions since SY2011. In addition, there were 882 school-related arrests (more than four per school day on average) and another 1,666 summonses issued during the SY2012 (more than seven per school day on average), also demonstrating an over-representation of students of color. These numbers might suggest New York City has a growing problem with violence and disruption in school but the opposite is true. Over the last several years, as reported by the Department of Education in November 2012, violence in schools has dropped dramatically, down 37 percent between 2001 and 2012. Indeed, violence Citywide has dropped dramatically.
Emerging facts suggest that the surge in suspensions is not a function of serious misbehavior. New York City has the advantage of newly available public data that makes it possible for the first time to see patterns and trends with respect to suspensions by school and to see aggregate data on school-related summonses and arrests. The data shows that the overwhelming majority of school-related suspensions, summonses and arrests are for minor misbehavior, behavior that occurs on a daily basis in most schools. An important finding is that most schools in New York City handle that misbehavior without resorting to suspensions, summonses or arrests much if at all. Instead, it is a small percentage of schools that are struggling, generating the largest number of suspensions, summonses and arrests, impacting the lives of thousands of students. This newly available data echoes findings from other jurisdictions indicating that suspension and school arrest patterns are less a function of student misbehavior than a function of the adult response. Given the same behavior, some choose to utilize guidance and positive discipline options such as peer mediation; others utilize more punitive alternatives.
The choice is not inconsequential. Recent research, including groundbreaking studies in Texas, Cincinnati and Chicago, underscore the important connections between academic outcomes and suspensions. Students who are suspended are more likely to be retained a grade, more likely to drop out, less likely to graduate and more likely to face involvement in the juvenile or criminal justice systems, thereby placing them at higher risk for poor life outcomes. Suspensions and school-related court involvement also generate significant and lifetime costs -- for extra years of schooling, for justice system involvement, and for families and all society. Notably, high rates of suspension do not yield correspondingly significant benefits, as research shows that high rates of suspensions in a school make students and teachers feel less, not more, safe.
Most worrisome are patterns of suspensions for students with disabilities and students of color in New York City and across the nation. In New York City alone during SY2012, students receiving special education services were almost four times more likely to be suspended compared to their peers not receiving special education services; Black students were four times more likely and Hispanic students were almost twice as likely to be suspended compared to White students. New York City Black students were also 14 times more likely, and Hispanic students were five times more likely, to be arrested for school-based incidents compared to White students.
Studies have shown that it is not the violent and egregious misbehavior that drives the disparities. For example, the Texas study showed that Black students had a lower rate of mandatory suspensions (suspensions for violence, weapons and other equally serious offenses) than White students. Black students exceeded White students only in the rates of suspensions for discretionary offenses.
Innovative school districts throughout the country, encouraged by the federal government, are increasingly moving away from suspensions, summonses and arrests in favor of positive approaches to discipline that work. In New York City, a range of schools similarly have adopted constructive discipline with good results. In short, we have examples of what to do. The challenge is to take that learning system-wide and transform the small group of schools that over-rely on suspensions, summonses and arrests. Change in these schools could have a significant impact on student outcomes, re-engaging thousands of students so that they stay in school and out of courts. But research and experience tell us these schools cannot make this change by themselves. They need help and support. Change will require strong leadership and committed partnerships.
New York City has a proud tradition of turning conventional wisdom on its head and achieving remarkable results. A recent example underscores this point. In the United States, conventional wisdom is and has been that mass incarceration is the cost of keeping communities safe. But New York City has proved otherwise. Even as the incarceration rate in New York City declined significantly, with a drop in the prison population of 17 percent between 2001 and 2009 and in the jail population by 40 percent from 1991 to 2009, the number of felonies reported by New York City to the Federal Bureau of Investigation also declined, down 72 percent. New York City proved conventional wisdom wrong with the result that thousands fewer people have been incarcerated -- saving the City and State taxpayers two billion dollars a year.
Similarly, New York City can refute the conventional wisdom of critics who think that sacrificing a few students -- although the thousands of students who were suspended, arrested or issued summonses each year is not a "few" -- can be justified on the theory it protects the many by improving safety and academic outcomes. There is no research that supports this belief and a growing body of research that suggests the opposite. Students in schools with lower suspension rates have better academic outcomes than students in schools with high suspension rates, irrespective of student characteristics. Students and teachers in schools with lower rates of suspension and arrest also feel safer than students and teachers at schools with high rates. Students who feel safe can learn, and teachers who feel safe can teach.
The students interviewed by Task Force members during their school visits echoed what the research also says: the best approach to keeping schools safe and improving academic outcomes is to support a positive school climate where students and teachers feel respected and valued. Evidence-based interventions like restorative justice, positive behavioral supports, and social-emotional learning are giving teachers and school leadership the tools they need to deal with school misbehavior and help build that positive school climate while keeping students safe and learning.
In 2011, Judge Judith Kaye, with the support of The Atlantic Philanthropies, convened the New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force to bring together City leaders to address the question of how best to keep more students in school and out of courts. She invited a group of stakeholders who do not often come together -- judges and educators, researchers and advocates, prosecutors and defense counsel -- to learn more about how the systems they serve impact each other and how they might partner together to achieve better outcomes. The Task Force heard from experts from around the City and country on promising practices. It examined data to improve understanding of the challenges and look for bright spots, schools that were succeeding even in the face of a wide array of challenges. Task Force members visited local schools and heard from principals and students about what they need. Members learned from each other and debated what avenues would be best.
The work of the Task Force leads us to conclude that New York City can safely reduce the number of school-related incidents that can ultimately lead to court involvement. Indeed, the City already has models of promising practice -- schools that have high needs populations with low rates of suspensions and arrests. Learning from these schools and other reform-minded districts across the nation can guide leadership across systems to further safely reduce court involvement, arrests and suspensions while improving academic outcomes.
We recognize that progress toward this objective will require a laser-like focus on shared outcomes and an unprecedented level of partnership among city agencies, and collaboration with the courts, and it must include parents, students, teachers, principals, researchers and advocates. Leadership and partnership at the top is the key. It will make possible the adoption of shared goals to improve outcomes for New York City's children across agencies so that schools do not have to go it alone. It will make possible the ability to divert summonses and arrests unnecessarily referred to the courts. It will make possible the ability to direct services where those services are needed and stop the flow of students with disabilities and youth of color into the suspension system and the courts. It will make possible the ability to raise up our support, expectations and standards for educational achievement and outcomes for students who do become court involved.
In 2014, a new Mayor will assume office. It is already clear that school reform will be a high priority, as it has been for the Bloomberg administration. Over the past decade and more, we have learned a great deal about what works and what does not work, even as we recognize there is more to be learned. Now we have an opportunity to build on what has worked well.
Reducing unnecessary suspensions, summonses and arrests is a challenge we can tackle and we must if our students are to succeed. In the end, many more young people can grow into successful and productive adults -- and it is our duty as adults to find the supports necessary to make that happen. Frederick Douglass was right on target in his observation that it is better to build strong children than repair broken men and women. This Report summarizes almost two years of learning, and it advances recommendations to make that happen.
As the next New York City Mayor sets the course for education reform, these recommendations offer a roadmap of next steps for a Citywide effort to take advantage of emerging approaches to school and justice system leadership that are effective and fair as a means to improve outcomes for all of our children -- to keep our students in school and out of court.