“Elijah,” an eighth grader, enjoyed school and got good grades. A black student at a mostly white school in Queens, he got caught with some friends one day playing with a miniature baseball bat — the kind sold at the Yankee Stadium gift shop.
The school’s principal determined that the toy was a weapon and suspended Elijah, even though another student had brought the novelty bat to school. None of Elijah’s friends, all of whom were white or Asian, were suspended.
Elijah’s is one of several disturbing stories documented in Education Interrupted: The Growing Use of Suspension in New York City Schools, a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union demonstrating a drastic spike in student suspensions under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s watch.
The report, based on an analysis of a decade of previously undisclosed suspension data, finds that New York City schools suspend nearly twice as many students as they did a decade ago and the lengths of suspensions are becoming longer — a trend that disproportionally affects black students and students with special needs.
Here are some key findings:
- Last school year, students served more than 73,000 suspensions. In the 1999-2000 school year, students served 44,000 suspensions, even though the overall student population was much larger than today.
- More than 20 percent of suspensions lasted more than one week in 2008-2009, compared to 14 percent in 1999-2000. The average length of a long-term suspension is five weeks (25 school days).
- Students with special needs are four times more likely to be suspended than students without disabilities.
- Black students, who compose 33 percent of the student body, served 53 percent of suspensions over the past 10 years. They served longer suspensions on average and were more likely to be suspended for subjective misconduct, like profanity and insubordination.
The overuse of suspensions denies children their right to a public education. It’s pushing students from the classroom into the criminal justice system. A study of secondary school students, published in the Journal of School Psychology, showed that students who were suspended were 26 percent more likely to be involved with the legal system than their peers.
National research has repeatedly demonstrated that overuse of suspensions can worsen school climate and is linked to lower test scores. Studies also show that students who are suspended tend to be suspended repeatedly, until they either drop out or are pushed out of school.
According to a New York Daily News article published a day after the report’s release, New York City officials were previously warned that the Department of Education was relying too heavily on suspensions to discipline students.
We hope our report motivates them to take action and abandon zero-tolerance discipline for more effective alternatives, such as conflict resolution and other positive discipline strategies.