Bronx parents, students, representatives from the New York State Department of Education, and officials from the NYPD School Safety Division had a roundtable Thursday evening to discuss the high number of suspensions and arrests in the borough.
The meeting, organized by the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, was a follow-up to the first People’s Hearing on School Justice in the Bronx, which took place June 25.
DOE statistics show that in the 2010-2011 school year, there were 73,441 suspensions, and in the first three months of 2012, from January to March, there were 327 student arrests. The Bronx accounted for 33 percent of these arrests, more than any other borough.
As the Voice‘s Sam Levin previously reported, Bronx parents are concerned about the high number of African-Americans and Latinos who comprise these arrests statistics, especially African-American males. Many posed questions to the NYPD School Safety Division about the extent of officer training in tolerance and conflict resolution. School safety officers currently receive 15 weeks of training, three of which are dedicated specifically to conflict resolution, mediation and working with special education students.
Parents also asked if the NYPD would be willing to make their training manual publicly available, so that Student Safety Officers could be held more accountable.
NYPD Assistant Chief Brian Conroy defended high arrest numbers, telling parents that crime in schools has been at its lowest in the last two years than in all of the years such data has been recorded.
But it wasn’t just officer training that raised questions for parents: Many voiced concern about teachers and principals who often seem to resolve conflicts between students by involving school safety officers.
“Students say: ‘I wish they would come and talk to us,'” Aeisha, a student attending high school in the South Bronx, told Conroy. “When kids are being defiant, it’s because they feel like they’re not being heard. As students we need that time from you guys.”
Chris, another Bronx high school student, provided a personal anecdote echoing Aeisha’s plea.
He talked about the struggles of his 19-year old sister who has faced many suspensions due to fighting and difficulty she encountered when seeking help from school counselors.
After getting into a fight with another female student, Chris said, his sister was required to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. This, coupled with her many court appearances for her arrests, has kept her from moving beyond the 11th grade.
“We have similar goals,” said Elayna Konstan, CEO of the Office of School and Youth Development for the DOE, to the concerned parents filling the room. “We want to help young people find new tools to resolve conflict that doesn’t rise to the level of arrests or school suspensions.”
Konstan urged parents to identify schools that they believed could benefit from additional training on mediation and peer-resolution for teachers. Her counterpart at the DOE, Joshua Laub, the Director of Youth Development services, was quick to interject that while the DOE has lots of training available to schools, it is not interested in mandating principals’ management style.
“Principal autonomy is very important to us,” Laub said. “We don’t want to encourage a one-size fits all approach and that’s why we give principals a menu of options for training and programs for their schools. We want them to take ownership of these things.”
Student arrests and suspensions aren’t the only roadblocks for kids getting an education in the Bronx. In District 9, only 25 percent of students in grades 3-8 pass the English Language Arts exam, and for seven years the district has been on the DOE’s District In Need of Improvement List without any change.
While much was discussed at the roundtable there seemed to be less of an idea about how to begin implementing solutions. Parents were asked for more participation and the DOE and NYPD School Safety Division were asked to be more accountable. The group decided to hold another, smaller meeting in the weeks before the new school year begins in September. Though everyone left the meeting with optimism, Konstan was careful to urge parents to have realistic expectations.
“These things are going to take time and they’re not going all going to happen in the four weeks before school starts,” she said. “It’s going to take an entire school year for us to roll out these things and begin to make changes.”