The brave and resilient youth from Parkland, Fla., have reminded our country that young people are powerful change agents and when we give them a platform to be heard they will demonstrate that those closest to the issues have the solutions we need. This week, a group of young, brave and resilient youth from my district traveled to Albany to remind the state legislature now is the time for us to listen to young people right here in New York and embrace their solutions for safe, supportive, and inclusive school communities.
For two years, high school youth from across New York City, as part of the statewide Safe and Supportive Schools Coalition have been advocating for New York to pass the Judge Judith S. Kaye Safe and Supportive Schools Act to end the school-to-prison pipeline and bring New York into line with 21st Century approaches to school discipline. The legislation shifts schools from punitive, zero-tolerance approaches to discipline, towards restorative approaches that keep students in class and build stronger relationships between students, educators and families.
In 2014, the Department of Education and Department of Justice released a joint memo outlining school discipline guidance to ensure discipline policies and practices were not disproportionately and unfairly impacting students of color and students with disabilities. In New York, discipline disparities across the state demonstrate Black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended at alarming rates. This comes at a time when the Department of Education under Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump have begun to roll back protections for our most vulnerable students, including rescinding the guidelines for protecting the civil rights of transgender students and scrutinizing the discipline guidelines.
Every child deserves to attend a safe, supportive and inclusive school that is equipped with the resources necessary to wrap students in social, emotional and mental health supports and programs. Youth leaders are not calling for more funding for school resource officers, zero tolerance policies, or invasive security measures. They are calling for passage of legislation that will ensure age appropriate responses to discipline, including ending suspensions for our youngest students (Kindergarten to third grade) and eliminating suspensions for minor infractions, for all students. These are reforms that have passed in districts across the country.
I’m intimately familiar with the harm suspension schools can have on students and families. They can stigmatize and push students away from school. Before my son reached his 10th birthday, he was suspended from school. As a parent, I wondered what was wrong with my child and where did I potentially go wrong?
What I wasn’t familiar with at the time were zero-tolerance policies and implicit and explicit biases that lead to Black kids, Latino children and students with disabilities being disproportionately suspended for the same behavior as White peers engage in with little or lesser punishment. The school’s decision to remove him from school didn’t help address the root causes of his behavior. If I had not demanded my son be treated fairly, he could have been among the many students who drop out before graduation because they no longer feel welcome or wanted in their schools.
As a mother, I understand all parents want classrooms that are orderly and focused on teaching and learning. But despite old beliefs, suspending students for normal, youthful behavior does not improve school culture and climate. School suspension and expulsion increases the likelihood that students will be held back a grade, drop out of school, receive a subsequent suspension or expulsion, and become involved in the juvenile justice system.
Under the new law, schools will have a variety of tools as opposed to only punitive responses that deny students access to education. Across the country, we have seen these alternatives work by intervening early and actively seeking to reduce the odds of future misbehavior by holding students accountable while teaching them the skills they need to resolve conflicts and ultimately succeed in life. The effort to pass the Safe and Supportive Schools Act is being led by our high-school students. It is the solution New York needs to create healthy and safe school environments where all children can thrive.
Maritza Davila is the Assemblymember for New York’s 53rd Assembly District.