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“Disruptive Pupils” and “Forlorn Teachers”: How Educators Participated in the Expansion of Suspensions In NYC Schools

Dr. Rachel Lissy

For more than a decade, my work providing coaching and professional development has brought me to hundreds of different schools in and around New York City. I have spent hours in the classrooms, noisy cafeterias and crowded hallways of public, private, charter, alternative and religious schools. In all these schools I met incredible people. Sharp, funny, skillful, inspiring and compassionate educators. I worked primarily with “school culture teams”--Deans, Assistant Principals, Social Workers, Behavior Specialists and Crisis Interventionists. These were the practitioners who were drawn to working with the kids often labeled and perceived as “challenging,” “disruptive” or “disrespectful.” I observed as these culture team members went above and beyond for kids and masterfully found ways to connect, inspire, comfort and motivate students who were otherwise deemed “hard to reach.”

I also observed these very same educators participate in questionable and troubling disciplinary practices. Charter school Deans who, after handing out cold salami sandwiches to students, would force them to complete lengthy reflection packets about character and values because they had failed to tuck in their shirt or “track the speaker” (all while their classmates enjoyed “Fun Friday” or ate a hot lunch). I worked with an Assistant Principal who attended the same middle school where he now worked and spoke passionately about the connection he felt to his students who I observed one morning impulsively suspending a student who ignored his request to remove his hood. I worked at alternative schools for students who had been repeatedly suspended from their district schools where educators would insist, desperately, that what kids needed was more consequences--as if this next suspension would be the one to finally do the trick. And with a lovely and warm Principal at a school on the verge of closure in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country who maintained that kids who wore jeans should not be allowed to go outside for recess. It was mind boggling to look around at the poverty, trauma, and injustice students were facing and conclude that what kids needed was more punishment--to be deprived of the one small joy in their school day because they were not “dressed to learn.”  

Educators do not go into teaching to punish--and yet they come to participate in harmful, ineffective and exclusionary discipline practices. Why? In previous posts I explored the events leading up to the creation of the “principal’s suspension” in New York City--a policy change, in 1958, that led to a dramatic increase in suspensions and “ushered in a new era of cooperation between police and schools.” These posts explored how the district’s shift towards punitive and criminalizing policies was motivated by politics--specifically white backlash to integration--and not pedagogy. In my last post I highlighted how, due to neglect and discrimination in social services, even before a single teacher interacted with the policy it was clear it would impact Black and Brown students disproportionately.  In this final post I would like to look at how teachers ultimately did interact with the policy and participate actively in its expansion and elaboration.

In 1958 following the announcement of the suspension policy change, teachers groups initially critiqued the city’s policy as  "negative and defensive" and brought about by "tragic gaps" and "basic deficiencies" in the school system. The Teachers Guild, New York City’s local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, supported it as a "stopgap" but argued the policy provided "shocking evidence that the city has not provided schools which can meet the needs of our time." When the Board of Education announced that with the help of state funding it would be opening six more schools for “emotionally maladjusted” students, the Guild responded: “it is no solution, to the breakdown of the school system to hide the cast-off children in cast-off schools”

In response to widespread criticism from educators, Civil Rights groups and advocacy organizations, the Superintendent backtracked and announced that the policy was intended to be only temporary and now that “everybody who was to be suspended [has been],” it would expire on April 1st, 1958. However, as that date approached it was actually educators--teachers and principals--who called upon the Superintendent to make the policy permanent. The High School Principals Association (HSPA) claimed that "waiting for the Assistant Superintendents permission causes delays that weaken effectiveness" and involves "months of red tape" during which time "incorrigible pupils are interrupting classwork, harassing teachers, contemptuous of the principal [and] the idol of his admiring classmates.”  The Guild described the suspension policy as recognizing “the necessity and wisdom of giving the power of suspension to the one in immediate charge of the school.” Indeed, in arguing for the suspension policy to be made permanent, the Guild and HSPA, redefined the policy and broadened its scope. Instead of decrying suspensions as unfortunate but necessary they argued that "strengthening the principal's power [to suspend]" had a “wholesome psychological effect...on both parents and pupils." The Guild claimed that “prompt exclusion of insubordinate, disruptive or violent pupils” had a “salutary” effect. In doing so, these professional associations attached a patina of after-the-fact pedagogical value to suspensions thereby giving a policy which was implemented hastily and with minimal forethought the imprimatur of professionals and experts.  

When I share this history with educators in workshops I pause here to ask them: “Why do you think educators changed their tune? Why did  teachers and principals groups go from criticizing the suspension policy to supporting it?” For educators, the answer is almost too obvious. After a pause, someone will raise a tentative hand or unmute, shrug, and share something to the effect of, “because it makes their jobs easier.” If you teach you know this to be viscerally true. You know the relief you feel when your most challenging student is absent. You end the day less emotionally drained, your voice a touch less hoarse. You may actually feel a sense of efficacy or accomplishment. As we explore and consider disciplinary debates and the roots of disproportionality in exclusionary and criminalizing policies, it is important to acknowledge an often unspoken truth: students--in particular challenging students--impact and become a part of teachers’ working conditions.  

In 1958, working conditions, especially in overcrowded, segregated schools were abysmal.  Reports on the conditions in Harlem schools published throughout the 40's and 50's described "bleak and dismal," schools operating on double and triple sessions (meaning 2-3 “shifts” of classes attended for half or a third of the school day). Class sizes could reach as high as 60 students with 35-40 students on average. Throughout the 1950’s teachers’ groups complained about parsimonious budgets which led to staffing shortages; minimal preparation time; poor curriculum and resources; and overburdened or non-existent guidance counselors, social workers and school psychologists. In April of 1958, at precisely the moment when the suspension policy was set to expire the city released a budget which made clear that little about these conditions was going to change.   The Mayor's budget provided 10 million dollars (the equivalent of more than a 100 million dollars today) less than the amount requested by the Board of Education. No additional funding for teacher salaries, smaller class sizes, guidance counselors, social workers, planning time or curricular resources was included. The Teachers Union described teachers as "stunned" by the mayor's failure to provide any money for teacher salary adjustments. The High School Teachers Association (HSTA) characterized the proposed budget as a "severe slashing" that showed "a lamentable lack of educational statesmanship."  In this context, for the Guild and HSPA extending the suspension policy was a means of providing educators with at least some relief. In effect, removing barriers to the suspension of “difficult students” was a way to make the job easier for educators absent any additional resources 

This was especially important, given the vulnerable position of teacher groups in the late 1950’s.  Prior to the 1940’s, teachers had been represented primarily by the Teachers Union. However, Cold War anti-communist purges and loyalty pledges had decimated the ranks of the Teachers Union. Teachers broke into groups by level (e.g. High School Teachers Association), by borough (e.g. Bronx Borough-Wide Association of Teachers) as well as by religion or ethnicity (e.g. Jewish Teachers Association).  Many members of the Teachers Guild had split off from the Teachers Union in the 1940's and embraced a more moderate "social democratic" ethos. Social democrats eschewed the broad critiques of the social order associated with radicals and communism. By contrast, they argued that American society could be made more equitable without transforming its political and economic structure. In 1957 both the Guild and HSTA were trying to rebuild their ranks and influence over district policy. These groups strategically shunned the more militant advocacy of the Teachers Union instead focusing their efforts on elevating the status of teachers by improving wages and working conditions. These efforts would culminate in the formation of the United Federation of Teachers (which combined the Guild and the HSTA) and the establishment of collective bargaining rights in 1962. Successfully pressuring the BOE to make the “principal’s suspension” permanent was a way for these groups to build their memberships and demonstrate their ability to meaningfully improve working conditions. 

Indeed, over the next decade discipline and “disruptive pupils” would become a powerful organizing issue for the UFT. In 1967, a key sticking point in a three week long teachers’ strike was the UFT’s demand that teachers be given a contractual right to “permanently remove” pupils they regarded as disruptive. One of the principal reasons they offered for including a “disruptive child clause” in their 1967 contract was that teachers needed to be able to remove disruptive pupils for the “sake of morale” and to “relieve the forlornness of individual teachers.” A UFT report called the “malfunctioning of the major factors responsible for the inexperienced and transient character of the staff in special service schools.” Reports and statements by teachers repeatedly presented the “disruptive child” as “the greatest obstacle to education in New York City schools,”  the “heart of the school crisis” and “paralyzing the educational process in school.”

By way of contrast, it is hard to imagine nurses making a similar case about sick patients. Nurses unions do not typically organize around characterizing sick or injured patients as an obstacle to healthcare or the cause of their inability to provide treatment. In the eyes of the Black community and Civil Rights Organizations, teachers' support for the expansion of suspension policies was reflective of their contempt and indifference towards the Black community and a willingness to put teachers' own self-interest ahead of what was best for vulnerable Black children.  The head of the African-American Teachers Association accused the UFT of “educational lynching” and being concerned more with “material matters” than “matters of moral and social justice.” The United Community Centers (UCC), an organization of tenants of the housing projects in East New York, argued that the “disruptive child,” was actually a “poor minority child who, beset by difficulties, recreates them in the image of the rejecting society he has known.” Many of these difficulties, the UCC argued, “have origins in the schools themselves.” The solution, according to the UCC, was to “create schools where suspensions are unusual” and where “teachers do not back away from burdened children in nausea and distaste.” For these advocates, the so-called “disruptive child” was not a “bad apple,” whose poor morals and attributes were infecting other children. Rather, “disruptive children” were “canaries in the coal mine” highlighting abysmal, hostile and unequal learning conditions. Instead of fighting to change or improve these conditions, policies like the “disruptive child clause” blamed individual students for reacting to the toxicity of segregated, neglected and overburdened schools.

Despite these critiques, a combination of the erosion of schools in loco parentis responsibilities along with racist ideas about the criminality and in-educability of “disruptive” (Black and Brown) children made it acceptable for teachers to argue for their removal without appearing to be professionally negligent. Indeed, support for punitive and exclusionary approaches that characterized Black children as dangerous and incipient criminals actually aligned teachers with the “law and order” ethos of the white ethnic communities where the majority of them now lived. 

I do not think the educators I described in my opening paragraphs suspended and punished kids because they consciously thought it would make their jobs easier. I think they thought they had no choice or hoped that suspending students would provide some relief or work (somehow) to transform student behavior. In doing so, they drew upon ideas about the value of suspensions that research has demonstrated, repeatedly, not to be true. The stories we tell about suspensions are compelling because the alternative requires facing the reality of what a suspension really is: a tragic failure--a rejection of a growing and vulnerable child who is often suffering and insecure and afraid. When we suspend children, we should feel the weight of this decision and resist the temptation to delude ourselves with stories that attach pedagogical value where none exists. Whenever possible we should strive to do the hard work--which is ultimately worthwhile but is, indeed, more work--to find alternatives. Knowing this history, we must recognize and resist explanations that place the blame for disorder and dysfunction on the shoulders of children-- those who have the least positional, hierarchical, collective or systemic power. We owe it to our children to fight for the resources that are needed to transform teachers’ working conditions into the learning conditions students deserve and require.

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  1. Leonard Buder,"Jansen Extends Suspension Plan," The New York Times, March 29, 1958. Mollie Dewitt, Letter to Charles Cogen (February 12, 1958, Series 1, Box 19, File 15, United Federation of Teachers Archives).

  2. Wayne Phillips, "Schools to Start Hearings for Suspended Students," The New York Times, February 11, 1958.

  3.  Edith Evans Asbury, "School Aides Ask for Ouster Right," New York Times, February 16, 1958.

  4.  Edith Evans Asbury, "644 Suspension Open Crime Drive by City's Schools," The New York Times, February 8, 1958.

  5. Ibid.

  6. New York Teachers Guild Press Release (February 6, 1958. Series 1, Box 7, File 8, United Federation of Teachers Archives).

  7. Sara Slack, "Back to School to be Cheated!" New York Amsterdam News, City Edition, August 31, 1957.

  8. "Mayor Releases Budget," New York Times, April 3 1958.For more on Teacher Labor and Organizing see Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980 (Cornell University Press, 1990) or Daniel Hiram Perlstein, Justice, Justice: School Politics and the Eclipse of Liberalism (USA: Peter Lang, 2004) 

  9. “Minutes of Disruptive Child Committee Meeting” June, 13, 196Subseries IIA, Box 97, Folder 32, United Federation of Teachers Archives, 6/13/67and 8/3/67

  10. “Effective Program and Structure for Special Service Schools: Handling the Malfunctioning Child in the Pilot Schools” May, 5, 1963, Series IIA, Box 21, Folder 38, United Federation of Teachers Archives. 

  11. Hay, Louis, “The Disruptive Child: Prospectus and Program,” December 8, 1966, Series 680, New York City Department of Education Archives. 

  12. United Teacher, vol 8. N.16, “Letter to the Editor Re: Debate on Disruptive Child,” April 7, 1967  

  13. Letter from Albert Vann to Albert Shanker, July 20, 1967, Box 24, Folder 8 United Federation of Teachers Archives. 

  14. “UFT problems with disruptive pupils in district 19K,” United Community Centers. Box 97, Folder 32, United Federation of Teacher Archives

Rachel Lissy, Ph.D., is a historian, consultant and capacity builder who work with educators to transform discipline policy and address racial inequity. This series draws from her personal experience as well as her dissertation, "From Rehabilitation to Punishment: The Institutionalization of Suspension Policies in Post-WWII New York City Schools."