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A Teachable Moment on School Discipline Reform

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A Teachable Moment on School Discipline ReformWhat De Blasio Can Learn, If He’s Willing to Listen

New York Daily News June 25, 2019
Urban PolicyNYC
EducationPre K-12

Last week, in what almost seems an annual ritual, Mayor de Blasio announced an initiative to take New York City schools further from a “zero tolerance” to a “restorative justice” approach to misbehavior. But there’s less to this year’s reforms than meets the eye — and that’s a good thing for students.

In years past, de Blasio has focused on limiting educator discretion on school suspensions. This year, the focus is on law enforcement. The Department of Education and the NYPD entered into a new agreement to reduce police involvement in low-level student offenses. Reviewing the changes, a New York Times headline declared, “Students of Color Are More Likely to Be Arrested in School. That May Change.”

But it won’t. Because students are not being arrested en masse for low-level offenses. The new agreement enumerates seven offenses for which police should use diversionary protocols in lieu of arrest: marijuana possession, disorderly conduct, consumption of alcohol, trespassing, spitting, harassment and graffiti. According to official statistics, these offenses accounted for 21 of 1,062 arrests made in 2018.

The agreement also stipulates that police should not get involved in non-criminal problems, such as cutting class and excessive noise. That’s all well and good. If police have to step in to handle a loitering student, something has clearly gone wrong. Educators should be able to handle these problems themselves.

To the extent that they can’t, it’s likely because they’ve been stripped of the authority to do so. In other major school districts, such as Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Charlotte, a decrease in suspensions has been accompanied by an increase in law enforcement referrals, as police are forced to pick up the slack from increasingly powerless teachers and principals.

Fortunately, de Blasio has chosen to go no further in undermining educator authority. He has not pushed New York City to join the growing ranks of school districts with a ban on suspensions for “willful defiance” infractions. Indeed, in a refreshing rhetorical change of pace, he declared that this new round of reform “is not about taking reactive strategies like suspensions off the table, which we know we need sometimes.”

Rather, he has announced further training and investment in “restorative justice” (RJ) in high schools and “social and emotional learning” (SEL) in elementary schools. In theory, “restorative justice” prioritizes guided dialogue to address the root causes of misbehavior. In practice, it often amounts to little more than an empty label slapped across a school’s effort to lower suspensions by refusing to suspend students.

When faced with its failures, RJ advocates insist that it would work if teachers were trained properly. The latest and most rigorous research casts significant doubt on that: Faithful implementation in Pittsburgh led to academic losses that disproportionately affected African-American students.

Similarly, although SEL is sweeping the nation as education’s newest fad, there aren’t truly proven pedagogical techniques to improve students’ ability to regulate their emotions and relate empathetically to others. Indeed, in Washoe County, Nev., the school district often held up as the national model for SEL, students have shown a substantial deterioration on social and emotional indicators.

Still, teachers should breathe a sigh of relief that this year’s discipline reform emphasizes providing them with more tools rather than further undermining their authority. State data suggests that bullying and harassment has been steadily increasing, and student surveys showed a substantial deterioration in school climate — before de Blasio changed the questions and answers to make further apples-to-apples comparison essentially impossible.

At the start of his administration, de Blasio removed most of the teacher survey questions on school order and safety. It’s well past time to ask teachers directly whether de Blasio’s reforms have helped or hurt, and allow them open comment to anonymously tell parents the unvarnished truth.

In other school districts that have done this, such as BuffaloOklahoma City and Fresno, teachers have told horror stories of administrators systematically covering up severe misbehavior, making schools more dangerous in reality even as they looked safer on paper.

If de Blasio is so confident in his reforms, he should be eager to give them the forum to extol the virtues of limiting traditional discipline in favor of restorative justice. And if — as seems more likely — teachers raise the alarm bells, then perhaps this year’s modest reform suggest that de Blasio may be willing to learn from them.

This piece originally appeared at the New York Daily News

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Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of a new report, Safe and Orderly Schools: Updated Guidance on School Discipline. Follow him on Twitter here

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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