De Blasio Overhauls School Discipline Policies, With Focus on Emotional Wellness And Restorative Justice

De Blasio Overhauls School Discipline Policies, With Focus on Emotional Wellness And Restorative Justice
By Sam Raskin/Bklyner

CROWN HEIGHTS—Mayor Bill de Blasio came to a Crown Heights public school Thursday to pitch his plan for a less punitive approach to handling in-school misbehavior while touting the recently approved expansion of social service workers assigned to New York’s schools.

After citing progress on test scores and increasing graduation rates, de Blasio said “it became clearer and clearer” that the city couldn’t “go to the next level without really doubling down on social-emotional learning.”

“We have an opportunity to set a new pace for this city and this country by finally recognizing the whole child, [and] everything going on in their life,” he said at P.S. 705 in Crown Heights. “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.”

The new plan adds 85 licensed social service workers to public schools in the five boroughs with the aim of aiding students when they’re experiencing emotional distress and guide students with long-term care if it’s needed. It also substantially changed city schools’ discipline rules to reduce the maximum suspension to 20 days, save for violent and serious offenses. (Previously, suspensions could last as long as a full school year).

Additionally, de Blasio announced that Social-Emotional Learning—a way of allowing students to openly express and grapple with emotions— and “restorative justice” protocols will be available to all students who face troubles. And a new agreement between the NYPD and the Department of Education, officials announced Thursday, seeks to reduce in-school arrests, reserving them for felony crimes, sex offenses, and other serious offenses.

Details are still being worked out regarding how the 85 social service workers will be assigned and dispatched to schools and how much the program will cost, though the Sanford Harmony-headed social-emotional learning program will not cost the city, according to the mayor.

For de Blasio, the program serves as an extension of the First Lady-headed Thrive NYC mental health program, reforms to the city’s public schools and as part of shifting away from a tough-on-crime approach on policing. He said he wanted to “dismantle the stigma” of dealing with emotional issues, and “infuse” Thrive NYC’s ethos into schools to “revolutionize” how the city approaches education.

First Lady Chirlane McCray in a Crown Heights public school classroom. By Sam Raskin/Bklyner

First Lady Chirlane McCray— who visited the school and read to students before the press conference and has in recent years spearheaded Thrive NYC — said students gain significantly from social-emotional training, allowing them to learn, manage stress as well as process and express their emotions without acting out.

“By building this foundation early, children develop stronger communication decision-making and problem-solving abilities—lifelong skills that we all need every day,” she said. “Students who receive social-emotional training feel the benefits throughout their lives.”

Richard Carranza, the city’s schools chancellor who has drawn a mix of ire and praise from Brooklyn politicians, said the focus of the program is not on the number of days for which students can be suspended but preventing such a situation in the first place.

“Today is a big step forward … for restorative practices and creating environments in those schools that we know is an enlightened approach, and not a punitive approach,” he said.

Carranza also took a thinly veiled shot at his critics, specifically those who say he has engaged in cronyism—a charge he says has been levied against him because of his race.

“I am so proud of the colleagues that I have that form part of my cabinet,” he said. “They are the most knowledgeable, the most passionate, they are the best-qualified, no matter what anybody says.”

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza in Crown Heights (By Sam Raskin/ Bklyner)

And more broadly, Carranza defended the efficacy of his tenure, boasting of what he says was the jolt in progress since he took over.

“When we arrived, this work was stuck,” said Carranza, who began at the DOE in April 2018. ”They were the group of educators and leaders that unstuck the work.”

But Carranza isn’t the only one talking up the city’s reforms.

“The presence of police in schools is totally unnecessary at the level that it’s at right now,” Vanguard High School junior Mendy Mendez told Chalkbeat.

And Michael Mulgrew, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) president— who has in the past been critical of certain suspension-reduction proposals—was at the Crown Heights school alongside the mayor to talk up the new policies.

“The whole idea is that … if we know a child is having difficulties or having challenges and they come to us, we want to get them the support they need now before they make a bad mistake which would warrant something that we know will affect them for the rest of their life,” he said. “We’re trying to avoid that.”