Advocates for Children, a nonpartisan civic group in Néw York City, conducted a study of discipline policies in Néw York City’s charter schools. Every school had its own rules, and many of those rules violate state and/or federal law. If charter schools are public schools, they should abide by the law; if they are private schools, they can continue to diverge from state and federal law. As matters stand, when children enroll in charters, they check their rights at the door.
Here is a summary of the study that appeared in the NY Times.
Here is the executive summary:
Ms. Lopez rejoiced when her daughter, Mia, was accepted to a local charter school for kindergarten. Ms. Lopez believed that this school would provide her daughter with the best chance of getting a high-quality education. However, within the first month of school, the charter school suspended five-year-old Mia for disruptive behavior, claiming that she had hit another student. Ms. Lopez was very concerned about Mia’s alleged behavior and therefore requested that Mia be evaluated to determine if she had a disability and needed special education services. While evaluations were pending, the charter school suspended Mia another two times for impulsive behavior. Ms. Lopez tried to find out from Mia what had happened, but given Mia’s age and a delay in her communication skills, Ms. Lopez was unable to get an explanation that she could understand.
Ms. Lopez was devastated when the charter school principal then told her that, based on the charter school’s policy, because Mia had received three suspensions, the charter school was expelling her after just two months of kindergarten. The principal stated that the school would give Ms. Lopez a two-week “grace period” to return Mia to her preschool (for which she was no longer eligible) or enroll her at her zoned elementary school. During those two weeks, Mia could attend school if her mother stayed with her the whole time.
Ms. Lopez had chosen the charter school because it had touted the extra support it provided to students to help them succeed. But at the time when Mia needed support, the charter school told Ms. Lopez to take Mia someplace else. Ms. Lopez could not believe that the charter school was giving up on Mia so quickly.
Mia’s charter school expelled her without providing written notice of the charges against Mia and the school’s proposal to expel her, without scheduling a hearing to consider Mia’s actions and determine an appropriate penalty, and without following any procedures required to protect the rights of students with disabilities even though Mia was being evaluated for special education services. Without the opportunity for a hearing, Mia’s mother did not have the chance to ask questions about what had happened or to suggest a less severe response that would address Mia’s behavior and allow her to stay at the school. Because the school did not follow the required procedures for students with disabilities, Mia did not receive a behavioral assessment to determine the cause of her behavior and develop effective intervention strategies.
When Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) reviewed the charter school’s discipline policy, we found that, although it had been approved by the charter school’s authorizer and the New York State Board of Regents, it did not comport with the requirements of the law. The policy did not require notice prior to imposing suspensions or expulsions, did not require a hearing prior to suspensions or expulsions, did not place any limits on the kinds of infractions that could trigger an expulsion, and did not include any of the legal protections required for students with disabilities. Indeed, a school administrator acknowledged that, before AFC’s involvement in Mia’s case, she had not been aware of the need to follow additional procedures for students with disabilities, as they were not included in the charter school’s policy.
After AFC intervened, Mia was able to stay at the charter school and begin receiving special education supports and services, including an individualized behavioral plan, that helped to improve her behavior in class.
Over the past few years, Advocates for Children of New York (AFC) has assisted an increasing number of parents who have contacted us with concerns about charter school suspensions and expulsions. In the past year-and-a-half alone, AFC has provided guidance or legal representation to more than 100 parents in charter school suspension and expulsion cases. Most of these parents had celebrated winning the charter school lottery and wanted their children to continue attending the charter school.
In helping parents with these cases, AFC found that charter school discipline policies were not always readily available.2 Parents often did not have a copy of the policies, and the policies were not always available online.
In June 2013, we sent Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) requests to the three New York City charter school authorizers,3 all charter schools operating in NYC during the 2012-2013 school year, and, to the extent possible, charter schools opening in NYC during the 2013-2014 school year seeking, among other things, copies of their discipline policies. Charter schools are required to comply with FOIL requests,4 and most charter schools responded. From the FOIL responses and charter school websites, we were able to review 164 discipline policies from 155 of the 183 charter schools operating in NYC during the 2013-2014 school year.5 These discipline policies came from large charter school networks as well as from small, independent charter schools.
(2) 82 of the 164 NYC charter school discipline policies we reviewed permit suspension or expulsion as a penalty for lateness, absence, or cutting class, in violation of state law.
(3) 133 of the 164 NYC charter school discipline policies we reviewed fail to include the right to written notice of a suspension prior to the suspension taking place, in violation of state law.
(4) 36 of the 164 NYC charter school discipline policies we reviewed fail to include an opportunity to be heard prior to a short-term suspension, in violation of the U.S. Constitution, New York State Constitution, and state law.
(5) 25 of the 164 NYC charter school discipline policies we reviewed fail to include the right to a hearing prior to a long-term suspension, in violation of the U.S. Constitution, New York State Constitution, and state law.
(6) 59 of the 164 NYC charter school discipline policies we reviewed fail to include the right to appeal charter school suspensions or expulsions, even though state law establishes a distinct process for charter school appeals.
(7) 36 of the 164 NYC charter school discipline policies we reviewed fail to include any additional procedures for suspending or expelling students with disabilities, in violation of federal and state law.
(8) 52 of the 164 NYC charter school discipline policies we reviewed fail to include the right to alternative instruction during the full suspension period, in violation of state law.
While charter schools should be able to discipline their students, they must uphold the rights of their students and provide them with a fair discipline process. The Charter Schools Act requires charter school authorizers to ensure that charter applications include discipline policies and procedures that comport with the law.7 Yet, all three authorizers of New York City charter schools have approved charters for schools that have legally inadequate discipline policies.
Based on these findings and our work assisting families in charter school suspension and expulsion cases, we recommend:
(1) Charter school authorizers and the Board of Regents should ensure that charter school discipline policies meet the requirements of the law and are aligned with federal guidance. They should not approve or renew charter schools unless they have discipline policies that comply with the law.
(2) The State Legislature should amend state law to affirm that charter schools must abide by the requirements of Section 3214 of the New York Education Law and its regulations, ending any perceived ambiguity in the law.
(3) The State Legislature should amend state law to include explicit standards for expelling students to ensure that expulsions for all schools, including charter schools, are limited to the most severe and dangerous behaviors in accordance with decisions of the New York State Education Department (NYSED) Commissioner.
(4) The State Legislature should amend state law to require all public schools, including charter schools, to provide full-time alternative instruction when students are suspended or expelled. New York City district public school8 students are currently entitled to full- time alternative instruction when they are suspended for more than five days.
(5) The State Legislature should amend state law to require charter schools to report suspension and expulsion data. Charter school authorizers and the Board of Regents should consider suspension and expulsion data, as well as student attrition data, in charter school renewal applications.
(6) Because charter schools and the DOE both have responsibilities to students with disabilities who face suspension or expulsion, charter school authorizers should collaborate with the DOE to develop a memorandum of understanding delineating their respective responsibilities to ensure that these students are receiving protections required by federal and state law.
(7) Charter school authorizers and the Board of Regents, with input from parents, advocates, and students, should develop a model discipline policy to provide guidance to charter school leaders. In addition, authorizers should provide training for charter school leaders and staff in suspension procedures, discipline of students with disabilities, and positive approaches to discipline, such as restorative justice, peer mediation, social-emotional learning, or positive behavior interventions.
(8) Charter school authorizers and the Board of Regents should identify and promote best practices and innovative, positive approaches to discipline, as encouraged by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.
(9) NYSED should post the Education Commissioner’s charter school suspension and expulsion appeal decisions on the NYSED website, alongside the district public school appeal decisions that are already posted.
(10) The State Legislature should amend the Charter Schools Act to require all charter schools to distribute their discipline policies to students and parents at the beginning of
the school year and post the policies on their websites along with contact information for the appeals/grievance process.
We make these recommendations in recognition that suspension and expulsion can have devastating consequences for the students involved. Suspended students are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out of school, have increased behavioral problems in school, and come into contact with the juvenile justice system. This data is particularly troubling because, nationally and locally, African American students and students with disabilities are suspended from school at rates disproportionate to their peers. One year ago, the federal government called upon all public schools to curb reliance on suspension, expulsion, and zero tolerance policies and to increase use of positive interventions, such as conflict resolution, counseling, and other inclusive approaches to discipline, to address suspension disparities and to minimize the negative impact of suspension on students. Improving school discipline in these ways is integral to creating high- quality public schools, including charter schools, that work for students, teachers, and school communities.”
To read the full study and footnotes, open the link.
From our review, we found:
(1) 107 of the 164 NYC charter school discipline policies we reviewed permit suspension or expulsion as a penalty for any of the infractions listed in the discipline policy, no matter how minor the infraction.
By contrast, the New York City Department of Education’s (DOE) Discipline Code aligns infractions with penalties, limiting suspension to certain violations and prohibiting expulsion for all students under age 17 and for all students with disabilities.