In New Haven Public Schools, black students represent 36 percent of the school population, but 62 percent of all suspensions. Now, the district is trying to change that.

At a New Haven Board of Alders Education Committee public hearing on Wednesday, members of the district administration and the public discussed the disproportionate number of suspensions given to black students, specifically black males. In addition to addressing questions of punishment, attendees of the meeting discussed possible policy changes that the Education Committee could implement. Several parents, teachers and community leaders shared testimony about their experiences witnessing discipline in schools.

“The answer is in our school buildings,” said Kermit Carolina, the supervisor of youth and community engagement for the district. “It is not, unfortunately, as simple as going back to the scene of the crime, which is many times dysfunctional homes. And as a neighborhood, we need to really understand the answer is in our school buildings long before they reach the streets.”

At the meeting, Carolina and district Director of Student Services Typhanie Jackson presented current statistics surrounding data on current suspension and expulsion practices. Although New Haven has decreased its overall number of suspensions since 2011, the numbers continue to remain high for black male students in the school. Despite making up 19 percent of the population, they received 41 percent of all suspensions in the 2017–18 year.

Carolina identified several barriers that black students in New Haven face, including disengagement in the classroom, lack of access to academic language, unconscious bias from teachers and issues at home.

In the presentation, Jackson and Carolina also highlighted several possible solutions. Carolina argued that the district should reevaluate its universal code of conduct.  He also told the committee that the district is looking for the city to reallocate funds for more reading specialists or academic advisers, noting that their presence would create fewer academic problems for students at an early age.

Jackson and Carolina highlighted the John S. Martinez School as a school which has been successful at decreasing its number of suspensions. When principal Lou Menacho came to the school in 2016, he sent teachers to receive Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) training, which focuses on individual student need for support and clear expectations and consequences for behavior. They also incorporated time for restorative justice practices in the classroom, eventually lowering suspensions from 40 in the 2011–12 school year to two in the 2017–18 school year.

Menacho asserted that changing disciplinary practices was “difficult,” but buy-in from teachers enabled practices to change.

“One of the things that I told my staff is that we are going to learn together,” he said. “And I took a really hard stance and said we are not going to suspend students.”

Ward 1 Alder Hacibey Catalbasoglu ’19 expressed concern that the efforts to decrease suspensions were not leading to changes in behavior, but only changes in the standard for what behaviors warrant a suspension. Although Menacho acknowledged that discipline practices had changed, he said that the new practices had increased student attendance and engagement in the classroom.

Steven Cotton Jr., a former teacher at charter school Achievement First Amistad High School, said that he resigned several weeks ago after witnessing practices that he said were detrimental to “school culture.”

Cotton also asserted that the attempts to decrease suspensions at Amistad have come at the “expense of classroom culture” because restorative practices have not been implemented. Several Board of Alders members expressed concern and vowed to obtain more information about the issue.

“Until the school to prison pipeline has been eliminated, everyone matters,” said Ward 26 Alder Darryl Brackeen, who was one of the first alders to advocate for a public hearing. “I want to know what schools are areas of concern.”

Similar to previous public hearings about school issues. The Education Committee decided to gather more information from the New Haven School Board and the public about the issue before taking action.

No Board of Education members were present at Wednesday night’s meeting.

“We should make a concerted effort to reach out to students,” said Catalbosoglu. “They are people who have been suspended and expelled, and can give us a more transparent and more accurate view of what’s going on.”

The Education Committee meets on the third Wednesday of each month.

Carolyn Sacco | carolyn.sacco@yale.edu