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School discipline policies criticized, defended

City councilors Monday night heard passionate arguments over the controversial issue of discipline in Boston’s public schools, which has come to the forefront after critics charged that students of color are suspended more often.

More than 100 people packed a three-hour hearing of the City Council’s Education Committee at First Church in Roxbury, where parents and advocates made their case for and against the tough disciplinary policies.

Councilor Tito Jackson, chairman of the Education Committee, called repeatedly for the Boston Public Schools to embrace “restorative justice” programs for students who violate the code of conduct.

Such programs stress talking with youths to help them understand their mistakes, rather than automatic suspensions for minor infractions under “zero tolerance” models.

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Jackson said changes are necessary in Boston since students of color are being suspended more frequently, making them more likely to drop out and enter the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“It is unacceptable for young people to have to go to school in zero-tolerance policy [discipline] models,” Jackson said. “When we get into race, there are huge disparities here.”

He also took aim at the UP Education Network, a nonprofit that runs multiple charter schools in Boston, asserting they have suspended an inordinate number of kindergartners at UP Academy Holland.

Tim Nicolette, president of the UP Education Network said the school decided last winter to stop suspending kindergartners.

He argued, however, that the UP schools’ high standards have helped increase student performance.

“We build a common, safe learning environment,” said Nicolette, whose remarks were punctuated by cheers from UP Academy parents wearing school T-shirts.

Among the academy parents who voiced support for the school and its tough discipline policies was Zaina Amin Jajah, whose son is a second-grader at Holland.

She credited the school with helping her son make strides in his reading.

“What my son is having here in Boston is great,” said Amin Jajah, an immigrant from Ghana.

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“Today my son can read. . . . I’m here because my son is getting a lot from his school.”

Other speakers expressed concern that suspensions were too frequent at both traditional public schools and charters, including Fania Joseph, a sophomore at Boston Community Leadership Academy.

“We don’t want any students to get pushed out of schools,” Joseph said, as she called for a greater emphasis on conflict resolution rather than swift suspensions.

School, Joseph said, should be a place that is a “motivating environment, not where they are being pushed out.”

Last year, out-of-school suspension rates were 7.6 percent for black BPS students, 4.4 percent for Latinos, and 1.5 percent for whites, according to state data.

Amalio Nieves, the BPS assistant superintendent for social emotional learning and wellness, said school officials are working with community stakeholders to develop more disciplinary alternatives.

He said BPS “believes students are most successful when they’re in school and engaged.”

Nieves added, “when students misbehave, [it is important that] we use that as an opportunity to help them learn from their mistake.”

Some charter schools in the city have reported far higher rates of suspension, and one Dorchester parent relayed what she said was a disheartening experience at the UP Academy Holland School.

Malikah Williams said her 4-year-old son was suspended from the school and that the suspensions continued when he turned 5.

While she readily acknowledges that her son needs help, Williams said, “there is no reason that a child 4 years old should be suspended from school.”

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Another speaker, Kalise Osula, who graduated last year from the Boston Community Leadership Academy, passionately argued for the need to change disciplinary policies.

Osula, noting that truancy is illegal, asked, “so why is it legal for a school to push out a student? . . . Being outside of the classroom does not lead to anything great.”

Former state senator Dianne Wilkerson also spoke and drew parallels between school discipline and politics. Wilkerson marveled that students who act out are suspended, whereas “adults act out and 30 million people vote for them to become the president of the United States.”

She added, “We have to embrace all the babies,” adding that suspending children ages 7 and under is “just not right.”


Travis Andersen
can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter
@TAGlobe.