New York’s Pushout Crisis: Why Students Don’t Graduate

Luke was supposed to receive his high school diploma this year, but, like many others, he did not. A 16-year-old black student, he was placed in special education with a label of “emotional disturbance.” Luke was attending a high school in District 75, the citywide district for special education, where students with disabilities are isolated from their peers without disabilities. It was not where Luke was supposed to be.

Schools often target students they deem "problematic" and repeatedly suspend them, even for minor infractions. The student then misses school for extended periods of time and falls behind academically. Flickr/Clint McMahon

Luke’s placement at the school set off a series of events that led to his being arrested and leaving school. While all students are different, Luke’s experience reflects that of other students in New York City and across the nation who are pushed out of school by degrading learning environments, inadequate services and curriculum, and harsh suspensions, expulsions and arrests. Students are too often treated like criminals in a school environment that favors punishment and exclusion over providing the support and interventions needed to protect students’ human rights to education and dignity.

The numbers give some indication of this. In New York City, for example, the number of zero-tolerance infractions in the Discipline Code has doubled since 2001, according to a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the number of suspensions in a given school year has increased by more than 250 percent, reaching more than 73,000 in 2008-2009. Since 2000, the number of school safety officers, the report found, has increased from 3,200 to over 5,000, but there are still only 3,000 guidance counselors.

From High School to Hiding

Luke, according to the Individualized Education Program that all special education students have, should have attended an inclusive high school, where students with disabilities learn in classrooms with other students. Studies have found that this generally leads to better academic performance and behavior. But at the last minute, the Department of Education informed Luke’s mother that the school he was slated to attend was too crowded. The department sent Luke to the District 75 school, South Richmond High School on Staten Island, where he faced many difficulties. Rather than receive counseling and support, Luke encountered school safety officers who were derogatory and judgmental, and teachers who escalated conflicts rather than mediated them.

On Jan. 15, 2010, Luke had a verbal dispute with a student in class, and his teacher asked him to leave the room. On his way out, another teacher told Luke he couldn’t be in the hallway. Luke explained that he wasn’t allowed back in class and tried to push past the teacher. Luke and his mother have said that the teacher then pinned Luke against the wall prompting a school safety officer to physically restrain and arrest Luke, leaving visible marks in the process.

After waiting nine months for his case to be processed in court, Luke was put on probation. Then a year after his arrest, Luke tested positive for marijuana, violating his probation, and was placed in a residential treatment center where he and his mother say he did not receive adequate services and support. This spring he was supposed to return to court for the probation violation, but for fear of being re-arrested, he ran away. He was missing for over three weeks, during which time the police refused to file a missing person’s report. Although his mother has since made contact, Luke continues to hide in fear.

“The school system provides no alternatives, they just lock these kids up, and this is not a solution. You’re dealing with kids who have other issues and need support,” Luke’s mother said.

Read the full post at Gotham Gazette.

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