An aerial view of the Great Neck South High School,...

An aerial view of the Great Neck South High School, in Great Neck. Credit: John Scalesi

Recent news about the fallout from armed intruders entering Great Neck South High School was disturbing on many levels. The ability of young people who do not attend the school to enter with weapons, despite the resources the district has spent on security, should give us all pause. We must find answers on how we can keep our children safe, and address the root causes of these incidents. We also must recognize that suspending young people does neither.

The story of the young man who was suspended in this case is one that is all too familiar, and one that I have seen repeatedly as an education advocate who studies school suspensions in New York State. On Long Island, over 100,000 days of instruction were lost to suspensions in the 2021-2022 school year. It is evidence of an overreliance on exclusionary discipline by school districts, rather than seeking alternatives that keep children in school and addressing the root causes of behavioral infractions. In the case of this young man, who had no prior disciplinary infractions, the root cause of his behavior was fear after being threatened by the intruders, as he stated in his written and verbal testimony.

Another familiar element of this case is the role that race plays in exclusionary discipline. On Long Island, Latino students are suspended 45% more frequently than their white peers, and the duration of suspensions that students of color experience is 46% longer than their white peers. In the Great Neck school district, where Black and Latino students make up roughly 10% of the population, this young man with no prior disciplinary record was suspended for six months. The student’s father in this case, whose primary language is not English, had to navigate this legal hearing without an interpreter present.

A January 2023 report from the New York State Education Department’s Safe Schools Task Force calls for reform through "restricting the use of exclusionary discipline for the youngest students, except under extraordinary circumstances, limiting the use of exclusionary discipline for minor infractions; limiting the length of time students may be suspended, and a shift from a retributive, punitive structure to one that helps students to learn from their mistakes and receive the supports they need to stay in class."

The Judith Kaye School Solutions Not Suspensions Act addresses these issues, but has failed for eight years to reach the floor of the State Legislature for a vote. The bill would largely eliminate suspensions for children in grades pre-K through 3. It would reduce the length of maximum suspensions from 180 days, an entire school year, to 20 days. It requires that academic instruction be provided to suspended students to ensure a smoother transition back into the classroom. As a member of the Solutions Not Suspensions coalition, I am advocating for the passage of this bill to enact the necessary guardrails to reduce suspensions, and to lay the groundwork for the structural shift called for by the state Education Department.

Children deserve to feel safe in school. As this young man at Great Neck South who was suspended said, "I just want to be a normal kid again. I want to feel like I belong there, not like some outcast."

The New York State Legislature has the opportunity to correct this injustice for our young people, and must do so in this final week of the legislative session. Our children are depending on it.

This guest essay reflects the views of Shoshana Hershkowitz, statewide organizer for education and child care for Citizen Action of New York.

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