A.G. Schneiderman Announces Agreement Addressing School Discipline Issues In Syracuse

A.G. Schneiderman Announces Agreement Addressing School Discipline Issues In Syracuse

SYRACUSE – Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman announced today that his office reached an agreement with the Syracuse City School District that will help reduce the high use of exclusionary discipline in the district. The agreement will further the commitment of both the Attorney General and the Syracuse City School District to protect school safety, while ensuring that every student in Syracuse has access to a quality educational environment.

“It is critical that every child in our state has access to a quality education, and the use of zero-tolerance policies by school districts deprives them of that basic right,” Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said. “My office is committed to protecting New York’s students by ensuring that districts adopt proven disciplinary policies conducive to a safe and effective learning environment. I applaud the Syracuse School District School Board and Superintendent Sharon L. Contreras for taking steps that will help eliminate the school-to-prison pipeline and expand the pathway to opportunity.”

Last year, the Attorney General’s Civil Rights Bureau began investigating the disciplinary policies and practices of the Syracuse City School District.  Specifically, the bureau reviewed the district’s practices for compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits state and local government entities receiving federal funding, such as school districts, from discriminating against their students on the basis of race or national origin. Discrimination includes the use of school discipline in a manner that treats similarly situated individuals differently on the basis of race. The bureau also investigated the district’s compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and state education law, which provides students facing discipline with certain procedural rights that must be respected.  

The Attorney General’s investigation revealed that the district suspended 30% of its students during the 2012-13 school year, giving it one of the highest rates of suspension in the state and nation. A significant proportion of those suspensions were for non-violent conduct. The Attorney General’s office also found that the district had a record of suspending black students at twice the rate of white students. These disparities persisted even when the conduct at issue was non-violent. The investigation revealed serious procedural deficiencies in the district’s implementation of discipline. The district often failed to provide adequate notice or convene adequate hearings for students facing discipline. Finally, the Attorney General found that students with disabilities were often disciplined for behavior that was directly related to their disability, in violation of federal law. 

Research has shown that suspensions have negative consequences for students, decreasing student achievement and increasing the likelihood that a student will drop out of school or enter the juvenile justice system, often called the school-to-prison pipeline. Moreover, studies have shown that, contrary to popular belief, removing a student from a classroom for disruptive conduct does not improve the performance of the remaining students.  Disciplinary alternatives to suspensions exist that better address student misconduct and do so without the negative effects of suspensions. Given the efficacy of these alternatives, most experts in the field agree that suspension should only be utilized as a measure of last resort.

New York State Education Commissioner John B. King, Jr. said, "What happened in Syracuse schools was deeply harmful to students and completely unacceptable.  But today, the Syracuse City School District is beginning the work to end the harm, address racial inequalities and protect the rights of all students. The agreement today sets an important precedent for districts across the state. The Board of Regents and the Department will continue to work closely with Attorney General Schneiderman to protect students' civil rights in every classroom in every school in New York State." 

“Today, we have come together to ensure that all of our students are provided with a safe and supportive learning environment,” said Syracuse City School District Superintendent Sharon Contreras. “We still have difficult work ahead in order to implement appropriate disciplinary policies and practices. I look forward to working with Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, his Civil Rights Bureau, our dedicated staff and the entire community to provide our children with the highest quality educational opportunities and schools of which we can all be proud.”

“Today’s announcement of the results of the Attorney General’s investigation help bring closure to a difficult chapter for the Syracuse City School District. While challenges continue, we are now able to move forward with a substantive plan for addressing exclusionary discipline practices,” said Mayor Stephanie A. Miner. “I will continue to work closely with the Superintendent, the Syracuse Teachers Association, parents, and community leaders to foster an environment where teachers are treated respectfully and students are treated fairly. I appreciate how everyone has worked together to help address these issues and develop a plan to move forward. I extend my thanks to Attorney General Schneiderman for his leadership and involvement.” 

“As a community we must work together if we truly value education and value our children. We must identify and implement better ways to support our students and our teachers,” said Board of Education President Michelle Mignano. “The Board of Education is committed to providing the best possible education for each of our students.  Our collaboration with the New York State Attorney General’s Office will help us to strengthen our school discipline policies, promote safe schools and most importantly, keep kids in school.” 

Former Chief Judge of the State of New York Judith Kaye said, “Reducing unnecessary suspensions is a goal we must strive to achieve if our students are to succeed.  It is our moral and legal obligation to reform school policies so that the young people of our state can grow into productive adults.  I am pleased that Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is taking steps to address school discipline matters in our state.”

Under the terms of the agreement, the District will commit itself to reducing its use of exclusionary discipline against students.  The district will:

  • retain an independent monitor to provide oversight during the agreement and audit the district’s compliance with the agreement and with state and federal laws periodically and report his or her findings to the Attorney General’s Office; 
  • create plans for the adoption and implementation of preventative techniques at its schools that will be aimed at encouraging students to avoid misbehavior; 
  • amend its Code of Conduct to adopt or encourage the use of disciplinary strategies that do not rely on exclusion as a form of discipline, except as a last resort; 
  • train its staff on these new preventative strategies, and on the new provisions of the Code of Conduct;
  • designate an Ombudsman to help the district and individual schools comply with the new Code of Conduct, and address school-level issues; 
  • upgrade its data-keeping and analysis capabilities to ensure that it has the tools necessary to identify issues in its discipline practices and act accordingly;
  • enter into a memorandum of understanding with any entity that supplies the District with school safety officers that will provide policies governing officer’s conduct and training for officers on interacting with children in a school environment; and
  • implement new measures aimed at informing teachers, parents and students of their rights, and protecting their voices in the formulation of the discipline process. 

This matter was handled by Assistant Attorney Generals Ajay Saini and Sandra Pullman, and Civil Rights Bureau Chief Kristen Clarke. The Executive Deputy Attorney General of Social Justice is Alvin Bragg.

Attorney General Schneiderman is committed to promoting access to equal educational opportunities and combating discrimination for all New Yorkers. To file a civil rights complaint, contact the Civil Rights Bureau of the Attorney General’s Office at (212) 416-8250, civil.rights@ag.ny.gov or visit www.ag.ny.gov.