Opinion

Give students detention, not jail time

Last fall, the nation was shocked by a viral video showing a police officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, throwing a 16-year-old from her desk and dragging her on the floor for misbehaving in class.

For some New York City students, this news triggered traumatic memories of their own experiences with excessive school discipline. It also spotlighted the criminalizing and punitive policies that have become all too common in public schools, especially for students of color.

These policies have pushed students, some as young as kindergarteners, out of school for minor and subjective offenses such as “insubordination,” being late, or not having an ID. For too many students, the classroom has become a space in which a behavioral misstep, however minor, can result in suspension, expulsion, summonses and even prison sentences.

Our shared resolve to support advocates who have been staunchly promoting restorative justice practices – and to find multifaceted, systemic solutions to the over-policing and criminalization of our young people – brought us together to consider progressive solutions that truly address these racialized, punitive policies.

That’s why we introduced a City Council resolution in support of state Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan’s bill, A.8396, which would require schools to implement comprehensive codes of conduct to promote safe and respectful learning environments. The state bill will keep students in the classroom and mandate positive interventions that help them deal with conflict productively.

The New York City Department of Education’s recent steps to address punitive discipline policies are well-intended, but incomplete. To truly address over-policing in our schools, we must begin a larger conversation about the role of the police.

In 2000, under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, school safety responsibility was transferred from the Department of Education to the NYPD with the intention of making students safer. The tragic result has been the NYPD’s criminalization of everyday behaviors such as minor fights.

Resource allocation is also an issue: While the Department of Education spends $360 million to $400 million annually on more than 5,400 safety agents, it funds only 3,600 guidance counselors.

If we are serious about achieving better outcomes for all students, this imbalance must be addressed – and administrators, teachers, parents and community members must be brought back into the conversation.

Nolan’s bill would codify many changes that several schools across New York City have already elected to make, such as prohibiting suspensions for minor offenses and for students in third grade and younger (except for the most extreme cases). It would also require that positive interventions be used and recorded before more punitive measures are considered.

Most importantly, it would put school discipline back in the Department of Education’s hands and require schools to work with the community to develop codes of conduct that limit NYPD and school safety agent involvement when a student’s behavior does not pose a threat to the school.

As New York City schools finally bring teachers, parents, community members and advocates back into the conversation about student success and support, it is time we did the same for our antiquated approach to discipline.

Gale Brewer is the borough president of Manhattan. Antonio Reynoso is a New York City Councilman representing the 34th District in Brooklyn.

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