De Blasio overhauls school disciplinary procedures to limit arrests

First Lady Chirlane McCray and Mayor Bill de Blasio arrive at PS 705 Brooklyn Arts & Science Elementary School on Thursday.
First Lady Chirlane McCray and Mayor Bill de Blasio arrive at PS 705 Brooklyn Arts & Science Elementary School on Thursday. Photo Credit: Amazon Studios

The city Department of Education on Thursday announced sweeping changes to its approach to minor behavior issues in schools, signaling a departure from a punitive disciplinary process to a guidance-based approach aimed at reducing arrests and summonses.

In line with this goal, the Education Department has overhauled an agreement it has long held with the NYPD that dictates situations in which officers can arrest students at schools. The revised version seeks to significantly limit situations in which an arrest would occur, recommending educators deal with minor and non-criminal issues themselves instead.

Mayor Bill de Blasio at a news conference compared the new approach and changes to the document — the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the DOE and NYPD — to neighborhood policing methods that emphasize reducing arrests by strengthening relationships between officers and the community.

“We’re taking neighborhood policing into our schools, so rather than focus on the traditional, more punitive approaches, we’re making decisions based on what makes sense for each situation, listening intently to the educators who know the students best, listening to the students themselves,” said de Blasio.

The revised MOU states that school officials, such as principals and superintendents, should not call the cops to deal with non-criminal misconduct as long as they can handle it themselves, and that disruptive behaviors should be addressed through guidance and other supportive approaches, rather than punitive measures.

Such non-criminal misconduct includes making noise, uniform violations, cutting class, smoking in school, or lying to school personnel, according to the document. 

It further states the NYPD should avoid arresting students “when feasible” for offenses such as low-level marijuana possession, drinking alcohol or graffiti.

The changes to the MOU are the first revisions to the document since its conception in 1998.

Officers will continue to issue warning cards, not criminal summonses, to students possessing small amounts of marijuana, said NYPD School Safety Assistant Chief Ruben Beltran, referencing an initiative rolled out last year in city schools, though he emphasized each situation is dealt with “on a case-by-case basis.”

“Before we issue those warning cards, we discuss that with the administration of the schools, the principals,” he said. “[We ask] ‘Is this the best course of action? Is there any past history?’”

The changes to the MOU were rolled out along with a broader initiative from the DOE to give students better access to mental health services. The mayor’s office last week announced that 85 additional clinical social workers will be brought into city schools beginning in 2020, bringing the total number to 200.

The city is also partnering with teaching program Sanford Harmony to bring its curriculum of “Social-Emotional Learning” (SEL) to every city elementary school, the city announced Thursday. The curriculum aims to teach children how to process their emotions before resorting to disruptive behavior. Training will take place in every middle school and high school in the city, where educators and school officials will learn de-escalation practices and the effects of trauma so they can better provide guidance.

“Some students walk into the classroom with tremendous pain or emotional distress,” said first lady Chirlane McCray. “Without the skills and the safe space to talk through how they are feeling, they might express their emotions by withdrawing and not participating in class or by drawing attention to themselves with disruptive behavior.”

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