How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless union boss. Mayor Bill de Blasio probably would agree, after United Federation of Teachers honcho Mike Mulgrew brutalized the administration’s latest effort to replace sound classroom practices with race-baiting political correctness. Last week, de Blasio declared an outright ban on classroom suspensions in kindergarten through second grade.
Mulgrew might have been more supportive of de Blasio’s plan to punt on classroom discipline. After all, didn’t the mayor gift the UFT a $9-billion-plus contract settlement right after he took office? But that would miss the whole point of unions: they exist to serve their members’ narrow interests.
Schools chancellor Carmen Fariña says that current discipline policies disproportionately penalize black and Hispanic youngsters, and give white kids a pass. It’s the administration’s latest application of the disparate-impact dodge: any policy that negatively affects a protected class—irrespective of the relevant facts—is by definition racist and thus unacceptable. But maybe the new policy makes sense operationally? After all, how much trouble can first-graders cause, no matter race or ethnicity?
Quite a bit, apparently. Certainly Mulgrew seems to think so: “Children who are . . . disrupting classrooms are not going to be helped by this plan to ban suspensions in grades K-2—and neither will the thousands of other children who will lose instruction as a result of those disruptions,” he wrote in an open letter to Fariña. Moreover, he continued, “[b]etter management would also result in more schools developing a positive culture of discipline and respect.”
Mulgrew is shedding crocodile tears. If he really cared about kids, he wouldn’t be so relentlessly opposed to classroom accountability. His message resonates nevertheless. Who doubts that he was writing about more than the new policy? Who doubts that he was ringing an alarm bell for the vast majority of New York City’s 1,400 public schools, and certainly its most troubled? Mayoral efforts to paper over a growing problem notwithstanding, the city’s schools have become markedly more dangerous since de Blasio took office. The teachers know it, thus Mulgrew knows it—hence the letter.
City Hall claims that there has been a 50 percent decline in schoolhouse arrests between 2011 and 2015—from 3,155 to 1,555—implying that fewer arrests are the product of less classroom crime. But fewer arrests don’t necessarily mean less crime.
According to the state education department’s School Violence Index, the number of violent incidents in city schools increased dramatically during de Blasio’s first year in office, from 12,978 in 2013–14 to 15,934 in 2014–15. At the same time, the index itself—the ratio of violent incidents to total school enrollment—jumped by 22 percent, the steepest increase on record. According to the reform group Families for Excellent Schools, “[t]here were more than twice as many ‘assaults with physical injuries’ reported by city schools to the State Education Department [during the 2014–15 school year] than the total number of crimes” publicly acknowledged by the de Blasio administration. Meanwhile, the NYPD reports a 26 percent increase in the number of lethal weapons confiscated by school safety personnel through May 8 of the just-concluded academic year, compared with 2014–15. So it would seem that a dangerous trend continues.
City Hall has a motive for fudging the school crime figures. The increases reported to Albany accompany a general softening of Bloomberg-era enforcement policies that had reduced in-school infractions by 50 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to NYPD data. Teachers surely haven’t missed the connection. De Blasio’s new K-2 suspension policy won’t reassure them about it.
The new lower-grades suspension policy must be understood in context. It represents a doubling-down on similar practices imposed by the de Blasio administration early on. The administration has generally eased off on suspensions and other affirmative disciplinary practices, arguing that they fell too heavily on black and Hispanic students and thus amounted to impermissible discrimination. Yet that argument fails on two levels. First, it’s difficult to make an intellectually honest disparate-racial-impact argument for a school system that is 86 percent non-white. Second, the administration fails to present an iota of evidence that the city’s relatively few white students receive favorable treatment in similar circumstances.
Just as crime attracts police attention in the outside world, disruptive classroom behavior attracts school safety officers; that logically results in suspensions and other disciplinary action—which is as it should be if the schools are to be safe, secure, and relatively tranquil, so that kids can learn. This explains Mulgrew’s concern.
De Blasio and Fariña have championed a different approach to classroom tranquility— the “restorative-justice” method, which concentrates attention on classroom offenders to the disadvantage of well-behaved students and those trying to teach them. It calls for easing up on punitive responses to disruptive behavior, concentrating scarce resources on the disrupters at the expense of better-behaved students, and adopting a children-will-be-children stance on classroom chaos in general. The concept has been around for decades, most recently being embraced by the U.S. Department of Education and pushed as a national remedy for racial discrimination.
New York’s rising schoolhouse crime stats—and the related de Blasio–Fariña dissembling—could be the canary in the public-policy coal mine. The issue is this: Does de Blasio intend to do all that he can to ensure safe, quiet classrooms for students who come to school to learn? Or is his principal concern accommodating disruptive and dangerous students at the expense of everyone else? Erstwhile ally Mike Mulgrew’s extraordinary letter suggests that it’s the latter—and clearly he wants no part of it. Neither should New York City.
Photo by Pool/Getty Images