Keeping Kids in School and Out of Court: New York City Regional Leadership Summit on School-Justice Partnerships

By Michael Cabasso, Susan Imam and Emily de la Vega

On October 18, 2013 the New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force held a Summit at New York Law School to discuss the issue of keeping kids in school and out of court.

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Background:

The Summit was the culmination of four years of work in New York City led by former Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye along with Kathleen DeCataldo, the Executive Director of the New York State Permanent Judicial Commission on Justice for Children, and Advocates for Children of New York.  The Task Force is comprised of distinguished community leaders, judges, New York City officials, educators, prosecutors, defense counsel, advocates and researchers who came together in an effort to identify, address, and find solutions for the wide array of problems surrounding school safety and school discipline.  The Summit was further supported by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, with additional funding from The Atlantic Philanthropies and the New York State Juvenile Justice Advisory Group.

This initiative focuses on schools that frequently use suspensions to discipline students who commit offenses while at school, or where students are the most frequently arrested or given a summons to appear in court. Suspensions often result from altercations, physically aggressive behavior, insubordination, and horseplay. Students are most commonly arrested for misdemeanors, with some students arrested for obstructing governmental administration or resisting arrest. The problem with suspensions and arrests is that they can push students further away from receiving an education.  Furthermore, there have been disproportionate numbers of students of color or with disabilities making up a large number of suspensions and arrests.  This finding was an issue of major discussion in the report and the Summit.

The goal of the School-Justice Partnership Task Force is to bring together a diverse group of professionals in order to best address this multifaceted problem.  The Task Force worked with experts in the field and came together to better understand the problems facing students in the New York City Public School System. The issues the Task Force is exploring include preventing students from entering the juvenile or criminal justice systems, alternative approaches to discipline in schools, and other ways to break the school-to-prison pipeline, just to name a few. Members of the Task Force sought out public schools that were successful in keeping children out of court and in school. Additionally, they spoke with principals and students to find out which aspects of discipline were working and which were not.

The Task Force members collected their findings and compiled a report which includes recommendations and strategies for fixing these problems. During the Summit, the Task Force invited its members and stakeholders to discuss the report and recommendations.

The New York City School-Justice Partnership Task Force Report and Recommendations can be viewed at this link.

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Above is an illustration of the proposed Mayoral-Led Citywide Initiative and the Task Force’s five accompanying recommendations. Excerpted from a PowerPoint presentation by Kim Sweet, Executive Director of Advocates for Children of New York.

Summit and Recommendations: The Summit included welcoming remarks from Judge Kaye, New York City Administration for Children’s Services Commissioner Ronald Richter, New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, and a New York City Public School student, Benia Darius.  The first plenary of the day, presented by Kim Sweet, Esq., Executive Director, Advocates for Children of New York, set the stage for discussion of the report and recommendations of the Task Force. These recommendations revolve around a Lead Recommendation for a Mayoral-led inter-agency initiative:

“Develop a mayoral-led initiative that establishes a shared goal among agencies, in collaboration with the courts, to keep more students safely in school while reducing the use of suspensions and school-based summonses and arrests.”

Five main recommendations have been put forth as a means of implementing this shared goal.  Below is a brief description of each recommendation. These issues were discussed at the Summit by the panelists in the plenary sessions, and then in interactive break-out sessions.

Kim Sweet’s overview presentation, which includes data on arrests and suspensions and a summary of the recommendations, can be accessed at this link.

Recommendation 1: Adopt a Graduated Response Protocol

The aim of this recommendation is to initiate a citywide plan to be implemented at the school level where a school would not rely on police intervention to handle disciplinary issues. The protocol would set appropriate responses to school offenses.  With a well-developed plan on how to address certain offenses, city schools will be able to curb suspensions and summonses through a continuous effort to identify, utilize, and evaluate diversion interventions.

This plan builds on 2012-2013 revisions to the New York City School Discipline Code that have increased emphasis on interventions and preventative measures.

Recommendation 2: Build Improved Capacity Across Schools with Supports to Implement Positive Discipline Strategies and Reduce Reliance on Suspensions, Summonses, and Arrests

This recommendation in part involves identifying schools and programs with low rates of suspensions, summonses, and arrests and encouraging similar practices in other schools.  The Task Force aims to build positive approaches to discipline and encourage funding for programs identified to be successful in curbing detrimental behavior without resorting to police intervention or suspensions.  A plan for reducing the use of police intervention would be paramount to building and changing school atmospheres.

At the Summit, several alternatives were shown during the Task Force’s plenary on school climate.

~Peer Mediation:  Maria C. Fernandez of the Urban Youth Collaborative presented the audience with a music video developed by high school students with the Morris Campus Student Leadership Council and Morris Peer Mediators.  The music video can be seen at this link.

~School Climate Reform:  Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D., of the National School Climate Center discussed the goals and trends of climate reform. The accompanying slideshow that can be seen here highlights the importance of a conducive learning environment and the effects that it has on students.

~Restorative Practices: Steve Korr of the International Institute for Restorative Practices presented statistics about students who have been suspended or expelled. In the slideshow that can be viewed here there is also accompanying data that shows the goals, implementation, and success of restorative practices.

~Community Schools: Katherine Eckstein of the Children’s Aid Society discussed community schools. Community schools organize the school’s resources and resources from the surrounding community in a way that promotes student success by focusing on academics, services, support, and opportunities. Information about community schools and their implementation can be viewed here.

~Therapeutic Crisis Intervention: Dana Ashley of The Institute for Understanding Behavior spoke about Therapeutic Crisis Intervention and the possible outcomes of instituting these practices.  TCI aims to provide a “systemic approach to understanding, assessing and supporting positive school behavior.”  More specifics about TCI can be seen here.

Recommendation 3: Focus the Role of School Safety Agents on Behavior Requiring a Law Enforcement Response

This recommendation calls for the tracking of school arrests and summonses by school broken down by sex, age, race, ethnicity, and disability status.  This practice would allow for better statistics to be kept on those receiving and issuing arrests and summonses.  The hope is that the City would be able to identify those schools where school safety agents appear to act more as first responders for students with emotional or behavioral issues, and would provide for dialogue, training, and enhanced coordination among school safety agents and school personnel.  The Task Force stressed that school safety agents are in place for school safety rather than acting as first responders for everyday school misbehavior.

One approach that was discussed at the Summit was Collaborative Problem Solving.  J. Stuart Ablon, Ph.D., of the Center for Collaborative Problem Solving and Think:Kids spoke about traditional discipline and the psychological and emotional effects it has on children.  Some School Safety Agents have expressed concerns about their roles and ability to perform their duties. School Safety Agents are being trained with different techniques to handle situations that may arise with challenging students.  A discussion of these effects and techniques may be seen here.

Recommendation 4: Improve Educational Planning for Court-Involved Youth

A concern expressed by those working with court-involved youth is the poor communication between agencies responsible for coordinating services to meet a youth’s educational and other needs.  This recommendation aims to strengthen inter-agency communication and establish a common goal of improving school enrollment, attendance, and achievement for these youth.  Strengthening coordination and cooperation between schools, parents, students and partnering agencies responsible for planning or providing services for the students is essential to improving educational planning.

Recommendation 5: Improve Educational Re-Engagement for Placed and Sentenced Youth

Similar to the previous recommendation, this proposal aims to strengthen the cooperation and communication between the agencies responsible for a court-involved youth’s education during the re-entry process.  Those youth who have been placed and sentenced often face many challenges on the road back to pursuing their education and face stigmas from their fellow students and school faculty.  This recommendation aims to build on existing transition pilots and capacity for schools to meet the needs of transitioning youth by looking at new possibilities for these students such as the ability for students to more easily transfer schools.  With the implementation of “Close to Home” over the past year, those students who have been placed in non-secure placements remain in the New York City school system and receive educational services from District 79.  District 79 helps to facilitate re-entry to students’ home schools and enables students to earn credits towards graduation while in placement.  This initiative should continue to make it easier for those placed students to avoid many of the issues that previous court-involved youth faced when placed in facilities outside of New York City.

Tim Lisante, Ph.D., Superintendent of District 79, gave a presentation on the practices of educational re-entry.  The accompanying slideshow presents an overview of the associated organizations that interact with court-involved youth.  He also provided statistics and demographics of these students that can be seen here.

The Summit was heavily attended and left many optimistic about the changes happening with New York City Schools.  This was one of several Summits to be held throughout the state by the Task Force and we look forward to seeing the progress made.

School-Justice Partnership Summit Photo by Yusra Matari
NYC Regional Leadership Summit on School-Justice Partnerships  10/18/13
Photo by Yusra Matari

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