Last year, video showing South Carolina school officer Ben Fields manhandling a female student went viral, sparking outrage across the country. According to reports, the student was asked to leave the classroom and when she refused the officer was called in to assist with the situation. In the video, which starts just before the situation turns violent, you can see the student is calm and non-confrontational. So why was such force used?
From the first day of school, a record of student behavior is kept that, quite literally, stays with the student for the rest of their lives. Any type of disciplinary practice that is used with a student is kept on record, and often builds upon the last one, making each repercussion worst than the last. Exclusionary disciplinary policies such as the popular zero tolerance policy have made it incredibly difficult for students who make even the smallest offenses to avoid suspensions and/or expulsions. Typically, there is a set of predetermined punishments for a wide-variety of violations with no differentiation between serious and non-serious offenses, meaning everyone gets the same treatment regardless of the offense. Zero tolerance policies gravely interrupt the education process. Once students are suspended or expelled, it leaves them vulnerable to outside influences that could have a negative impact on their lives such as drugs, gangs and gun violence. Initially, the zero tolerance policy, along with an increase of School Resource Officers, was meant to decrease violence in schools, but has had an adverse affect on youth of color.
The school to prison pipeline is a term that describes the increasing contact that students have with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems. Zero tolerance policies disproportionately affect Black and Latino students and are the main component in the school-to-prison pipeline. According to a report released by Dignity in Schools, black students in New York City served 53 percent of suspensions over the last 10 years although they only make up 33 percent of the student body. Black students also served longer suspensions and were more likely to be suspended for subjective misconduct, such as profanity and insubordination. Overall, 70 percent of students arrested or referred to police at school are black or Latino, making them three times more likely to get suspended or expelled than white students. Students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than those without. This system almost directly mirrors the prison system, where black civilians are convicted for things that their white peers often aren’t and are given longer sentences for the same crimes.
IN THE ROCKAWAYS
High schools on the Rockaway Peninsula have some of the highest principal and superintendent suspensions in New York City high schools. Nearly 500 principal suspensions and over 100 superintendent suspensions have been issued over the past year between the six high schools in Rockaway, with Fredrick Douglas Academy VI and Beach Channel leading the pack. Black people make up around 40% of the population across the Rockaways, so it is no surprise that suspension rates are so high. According to a report by the Correctional Association of New York, Far Rockaway has one of the highest rates of juvenile detention in New York City, along with South Jamaica, Harlem, Brownsville and the South Bronx. Communities with the highest rates of detention also have the highest rates of poverty, poor housing and under-performing schools. However, it is important to note that while these areas have high rates of juvenile detention, juveniles account for less than 4% of arrests for major felonies. Too often, children are taken out of productive environments as a punishment for bad behavior—this is where restorative justice steps in.
Currently, the environment in schools can be pretty tense. With loads of School Safety Agents and metal detectors, it can be easy to feel like you’re in a prison instead of a school. Restorative justice aims to diminish zero tolerance policies and decrease the presence of School Safety Agents. Instead of suspending, expelling and/or arresting students for not following the rules, restorative justice would allow for students to remain in a productive environment while also getting to the root of their misbehaving. Some of the toughest schools across the country, including those in West Philadelphia and Chicago, have implemented restorative justice practices in their schools and experienced a vast improvement in student behavior.
Restorative justice programs encourage the implementation of common-sense solutions, including revising codes of conduct to limit disciplinary practices that keep children out of school, adopting school-wide preventive and positive discipline policies, providing regular training and support on positive approaches to discipline for all school personnel and ensuring that students and parents have a right to participate in decision-making affecting school policies.
In 2015, School Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced that in partnership with the NYPD and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice the Department of Education would begin a series of school climate and discipline reforms. On July 21, Mayor De Blasio announced plans to make modifications to the discipline code, including the use of suspensions in kindergarten through second grade and protocols for removing and adding metal detectors from schools. While there is still much work to be done, this is certainly a step in the right direction.