New York City Faces School Arrests and Failing Mental Health Programs in Public Schools

05 May in
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By Andrea Bustard, Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York

Before 6-year old Salecia Johnson was handcuffed in a Georgia classroom and escorted to the local police station after a tantrum last month, a 5-year-old autistic boy in Brooklyn was strapped to a stretcher, hauled out of his Brighton Beach classroom and taken in an ambulance to a psych ward on March 6.

Other stories of New York City students being handcuffed and sent to hospital for tantrums were highlighted at a New York City Council hearing on May 1st to review school-based mental health programs. Council members criticized the harsh reactions of many school administrators in recent years, which have resulted in handcuffing and forcing students to the emergency room. It was clear that the Department of Education lacks a clear and appropriate policy for how to respond to these incidents and is not providing adequate mental health services for students.

Members of the Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York, including Jaime Koppel from Children’s Defense Fund-New York and Avni Bhatia from Advocates for Children testified at the hearing.

In a recent New York Times article, Nelson Mar with Legal Services NYC-Bronx reported that at one Bronx hospital in just a 10-day period in February, there were 58 E.M.S. calls from schools.

The Brighton Beach student was taken away on a stretcher after a tantrum. The incident then quickly escalated when his mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother were stopped by police as they attempted to accompany the boy in the ambulance. According to New York Daily News, Ida Rozenberg, the child’s mother, was handcuffed before being permitted to accompany her son in the ambulance. Grandmother Maria Lirtsman was not allowed to see her grandson and was forcefully escorted from the school and handcuffed. Lirtsman was shocked to be “treated like garbage, like I’m a second-class citizen”. It was through the intervention of the ambulance driver that Rozenberg was released from handcuffs, but great-grandmother Lana Lirtsman was pushed to the ground by police officers when attempting to climb into the ambulance. Later that evening, she went to the hospital with chest pain and learned she had a broken rib. According to a Department of Education spokesperson, a teacher’s aide has been assigned to the child and has begun working with the family to meet the child’s needs.

These alarming incidents highlight the need for discipline reform in public schools. Not only has federal data shown racial gaps in school arrests, but New York City records are no different with Black or Latino students representing 93.5% of school arrests. In the City, over 30% of suspensions were served by students with special needs according to the Department of Education data for Individualized Education Program students in the 2010-2011 school year.

Chancellor Walcott agrees that, “Ensuring a safe and nurturing learning environment is a critical part of our job and key to the academic success of our students, and our schools are safer than they were before.  We all would like to see the suspension numbers come down, […] trying mediation and counseling where possible before suspending students.”

The Dignity in Schools Campaign – New York continues to call for a 50% reduction in suspensions by September 2013 and the implementation of positive approaches to discipline. The campaign represents a coalition of students, parents, educators, civil rights, students’ rights and community organizations.