Students of Color are More Likely to Be Arrested in School. That May Change.

Andrea Colon, an 18-year-old student activist from Far Rockaway, Queens, traveled a thousand miles to a presidential campaign stop for Mayor Bill de Blasio in Hiawatha, Iowa — not to hear his views on national issues, but to confront him about arrests in schools.

“If we act like young people, if we get into a fight or talk back, we are going to get suspended or have an interaction with the police,” Ms. Colon said on Thursday, explaining what she told Mr. de Blasio. As a young Hispanic girl in a large city high school, she said, “I just realized that you don’t get the benefit of the doubt.”

Ms. Colon’s criticism of city policy reflects a broader movement focused on reducing the role of police officers in schools. On Thursday, responding to longstanding concerns that the system penalizes black and Hispanic students, Mr. de Blasio announced new rules that will limit arrests in schools for low-level offenses.

In addition, it’s likely that the maximum amount of time for suspensions will be sharply reduced.

For decades, city statistics have shown that the New York City school system has disciplined black and Hispanic students at higher rates than white and Asian children — an unsettling yet consistent feature of the nation’s largest school district.

The new guidelines represent perhaps Mr. de Blasio’s most dramatic attempt to change how students of color are disciplined — and how police interact with students in school. All New York school buildings have a New York Police Department school safety agent, and other police officers are allowed in schools.

Ms. Colon said she went to Iowa to ask the mayor to eliminate all arrests and summonses in schools. Though she didn’t get the exact answer she hoped for, she said the changes are “a step in the right direction.”

Black and Hispanic students represent about 90 percent of arrests and summonses in schools, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Though suspensions have plummeted by about 30 percent since Mr. de Blasio took office, 46 percent of total suspensions last year were issued to black students, who make up 26 percent of the school system.

After years of sometimes rocky experimentation with ways to replace former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s so-called zero tolerance approach, the city will use restorative justice practices that emphasize defusing conflict over suspensions in all middle and high schools starting in the next school year. The city will add 85 new social workers, funded as part of the final city budget, to schools in an attempt to ease the transition.

Over the last five years, civil liberties leaders and student activists have made racial disparities in discipline a major liability for Mr. de Blasio, who has promised to reduce inequality in all aspects of city life.

Image“This is a moment of change, this is a moment where students are going to get the support they need to be their best selves,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference on Thursday.
CreditJames Estrin/The New York Times

Students who have had experiences with arrests in schools have pleaded with the mayor to adopt a new strategy. Paola Mena, a 17-year-old city high school student, said being arrested after a fight outside of her Bronx middle school several years ago was one of the worst experiences of her life.

Paola said she was sticking up for a friend who had been bullied when she got into a verbal fight with another student. Paola said the other girl spat on her, and Paola tried to throw a punch that didn’t land. A few moments later, she remembered being grabbed from behind by police officers and taken to the local precinct, where she said she was handcuffed to a chair.

“Ever since that day, walking through the halls in school, I felt really ashamed,” said Paola, who was 14 at the time of her arrest. “Everyone knew what happened, everyone saw me being dragged by people who were twice my size.”

The mayor will likely still have to grapple with criticism from both sides of the issue.

Many black and Hispanic students have said they want to see metal detectors eliminated in schools, and some teachers, along with the union that represents school safety agents, say Mr. de Blasio has removed discretion from professionals about how to enforce discipline.

Though major crime in schools has dropped by nearly 30 percent since 2014, Teamsters Local 237 and some teachers have said schools are underreporting issues in order to appease City Hall.

The new discipline code will have an immediate impact when school opens in September.

School safety agents will be discouraged — but not explicitly banned — from arresting students or giving summonses for minor offenses like marijuana possession, graffiti or disorderly conduct.

That shift, which was first reported by the education news site Chalkbeat, is covered under an agreement between the Police Department and Department of Education that had not been updated since former Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani’s administration. Mr. de Blasio is also proposing that the maximum length of an out-of-school suspension drop to 20 days from 180 days.

Ms. Colon, the student from Queens, remembered that one girl who had gotten into a fight at her high school was suspended for 180 days. “She came back a year later and I was like, ‘what the hell happened to you?’”

The new rules are not quite mandates; there are exceptions for violent offenses, incidents related to guns and other weapons and other issues.

Mr. de Blasio has learned that total bans on suspensions and arrests are unpopular. A 2016 plan to eliminate all suspensions for kindergarten students was opposed by the city’s teachers union and eventually softened.

Mr. de Blasio has heralded his school safety agenda as a microcosm of his broader goal that the city can be both safe and fair to black and Hispanic communities who have had the most contact with the criminal justice system.

“This is a moment of change, this is a moment where students are going to get the support they need to be their best selves,” Mr. de Blasio said at a news conference on Thursday. “It’s going to help us build a stronger and fairer city.”

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