Progress Takes Work, but Young People Deserve It: GGE and Teachers Unite Support For Changes to Discipline Code and Restorative Justice
A response to Council of School Supervisors and Administrators’ letter to the Chancellor of NYC Department of Education Richard Carranza
by Ashley C. Sawyer Esq., Directory of Policy, Girls for Gender Equity and
Sally Lee, Founder and Executive Director, Teachers Unite
Just a few years ago, I saw a video of a teenage Black girl, I’ll call her K, getting dragged in handcuffs in front of an entire school building, by school police, for an incident that began with cursing at a teacher. K was allegedly playing basketball at a neighborhood school, and when K cursed at a teacher, the teacher immediately escalated the interaction. Instead of engaging this young person in a conversation, or even trying to establish a rapport with her, the teacher immediately called for NYC School Police (called School Safety Agents), those officers chased K, and when they caught up with her in front of the school, I saw a handful of officers literally tackle her to the ground, and violently handcuff her.
I met K when I was representing students from New York City public schools in suspension hearings, I was K’s lawyer. Later, I had a conversation with the dean from K’s high school, it was clear that K was struggling academically, as we reviewed her education record it was clear that schools had not been a source of safety or protection for her, instead they had been a tool to criminalize her. There are hundreds of Black girls who have experiences like K in New York. Black girl’s education, in fact, their futures, are what we risk when we (adults) are not willing to commit to changing the way we think about discipline.
For decades, students, parents, teachers, and advocates for racial justice, disability justice, and educational equity fought to dismantle the practices and policies which made public schools the feeders of incarceration. Throughout the last decade, communities came together to help the New York City Department of Education understand that “zero tolerance” policies, which suspend and arrest students, (disproportionately Black and Latinx students, and students with special education needs) were harmful and do not create safety. We have seen tremendous progress in the way that the DOE and school districts across the country think about school discipline and school climate. We cannot go backwards, nor can we allow inadequate resourcing to undermine the sea of change that many worked so hard to foster. In fact, there is so much more progress to work toward, we still see persistent racial disparities in discipline.
Teachers Unite members are not just horrified by the conditions, policies, and practices that push their Black and Latinx students toward the criminal justice system, they fight relentlessly to keep those students in schools that care for them. Our members are NYC public school educators taking the initiative to launch peer mediation programs, establish credit-bearing restorative justice internships for students, lead study groups with colleagues about the racist impact of a discipline culture based on punishment, and so much more. These educators speak to the necessity of ensuring that models for transforming school climate include: multi-stakeholder decision-making processes, tackling conversations about race and racism, as well as creating core values upon which an individual school community is based.
Above all, our members emphasize that these innovations take time. When they share their expertise in forging new paths in this way, they describe years of collaborative reflection, study, community-building, program design, and training. It takes time to plan and implement new community celebrations to emphasize shared values and commitment to them, new processes for referring students and staff when there is conflict, new methods to ensure those involved in conflict are supported and followed-up with. There must be a counterbalance to the mandated discipline policies in our city and in districts across the country: their implementation must come with investment in the leadership of parents, young people, and educators leading the way in their schools.
The incredible schools that are really making changes in the way they approach discipline have done so without additional (but needed) resources, staff, or compensation for the time invested in growing new practices, mindsets, strategies, and tools.
What’s missing from the mayor’s positive school climate initiatives, is a commitment to investing in the leadership of Black and Latinx members of school communities. Teachers Unite members working with students to lead school-based restorative justice practices and programs are frustrated that while the School to Prison Pipeline is well-established, there is no jobs pipeline for young people who have mastered these critical new skills. We work with principals who are forced to make staffing and funding sacrifices in some areas in order to give life to new ways to build community and help young people. It is certainly those principals we can also greatly learn from; they battle the structural challenges to realizing these transformational goals every day.
At GGE, we fully agree with the Principal’s Union that NYC must make a sincere commitment through fiscal resources to restorative justice practices and positive school climate. This is not optional. Without appropriate resourcing, the programs and changes to discipline practices will fail. Every single school should be adequately staffed, each school should have an assistant principal, a restorative justice coordinator, ample teachers and social workers, to implement graduated responses to student behavior, and to build meaningful connections to students which prevent negative interactions.
We also believe that in order to achieve racial and gender justice, we must abandon the discretion framework, where adult staff decide, based on their own biases, which students deserve a low-level intervention, and which students deserve to be kicked out of school. Wide discretion cements the biases of the adults, and the harm to young people’s ability to feel affirmed and safe in school. We see it when we look at subjective infractions like those related to school dress codes.
Black girls deserve to make mistakes in school, students with disabilities deserve to have the kind of support that will allow them to flourish, even when they are having a tough day. Black girls also deserve to be viewed as children, and not adults, and their leadership should be valued rather than viewed as “disrespect.” When we fail to make room for young people to be young people, we create inequity and undermine the progress needed to make NYC more safe, affirming, and healing for students.